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Beyond "What's Written" to WHY it Was Written

I have noticed a trend when talking to students about their reading. For the most part, they are able to tell me what they are reading; the gist, the main ideas. Many are also able to think more deeply about the text (ie, what the characters might be feeling, connections to other texts/concepts, implications for the larger world). However...questions about author's perspective, stance, and purpose tend to confuse them. Or at least catch them by surprise.

This type of critical thinking-not about what a text says, but about who is saying it and why s/he is saying it-strengthens students both as readers and writers. It reinforces that fact that texts are not neutral and that behind every text, a writer is making deliberate choices about content, phrasing, pacing, structure and myriad other aspects.

Consider this article on global warming, which offers a dozen different perspectives on the topic. Some questions one might pose to students are:
How did the authors come to hold the beliefs they hold?
What qualifies them to have an informed opinion on the topic?
How are the perspectives the same/different?
What kind of words do they use to emphasize their arguments?
What evidence supports their thinking?
Which argument(s) do you tend to agree with and why?

How might looking at an author’s choices and purpose impact the reading and writing your students are doing? What would these conversations look like in your classroom?

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Giving Feedback: When, Where, Who and How Much?

Undoubtedly, developing skilled writers is one of the most complex tasks teachers are asked to accomplish with their students. There are so many considerations from grammar to style to voice...the list goes on and on.

We also know that students (usually) do not organically become great writers without copious amounts of guidance and feedback. But with upwards of 30 students in a classroom, it's no small feat to provide exactly the feedback each student needs at exactly the moment he or she needs it.

There is no one perfect answer to address the issue of time when providing feedback on student work, but one suggestion is to establish 1-3 critical look fors and give feedback only on those aspects of writing. Additionally, teachers might group students according to proficiency (met versus not yet) and provide feedback to small groups of students in person.

For more detailed information, check out today's tip linked below. This Checklist Protocol was initially shared in one of the Instructional Strategies groups and has sparked conversation about working smarter, not harder (forgive the cliche) when giving student feedback.

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A Quick Delve into Critical Literacy

Critical Literacy. It's a term that's been cropping up more and more when discussing literacy and pedagogy. And for some, it is an answer to the question: how do we want students to interact with the texts they encounter in our contents? While the definitions offered differ slightly depending on who you ask, the general understanding about critical literacy is that it allows the reader to engage deeply with a text to analyze connections between language, knowledge, and power.

A quick Google search yields 11,300,000 results with the query “critical literacy,” but I found the blog linked below especially relevant as it illustrated what critical literacy might look like in a variety of content areas. Check it out to see the different interpretations in a science classroom, history classroom, art classroom, and English classroom.

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To those who know us well, it's no surprise that Theresa and I are huge fans of the work done by Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle. Among the traits we admire about them as educators is the way in which they approach the writing process.

At a recent conference, we had the opportunity to listen to Kittle present. One phrase she used that struck us as particularly insightful and powerful was that "students need to stand on the shoulders of stronger writers to become better writers themselves." This sentiment was echoed throughout the conference from a variety of sources.

Popular children's author Mem Fox read several of her works and shared exactly where she borrowed ideas, phrasing, and structure from other writing mentors. In the article shared in today's tip, Gallagher recalls a time he had to write a professional grant...and had never done so before. Practicing what he prescribes, he turned to a strong example of a previously successful grant to borrow language and structure. Additionally, Gallagher explains how he purposefully uses mentor texts in the classroom. In one example, he presented a long sentence filled with a variety of verbs from The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. (For the record, it is irksome that this platform does not allow one to italicize titles.) He then asks his students to notice qualities about the sentence, prompting and guiding as needed, and then invites them to emulate what they observed in the sentence. This specific attention to small details in writing broken down into bite size pieces is how students are able to develop their craft over time. Check out the rest of the article for more ideas on how to use mentor texts in your content with your students.

Considering the wide array of writing opportunities we collectively provide for students, I began thinking about what mentor texts one might use in a given content. Here are some of my musings:

-Art/theater reviews from NY Times or other well known publications or blogs
-Book reviews
-Opinion/persuasive pieces/social commentary (Not too long ago I read an opinion piece on Pepsi’s latest commercial campaign with Kylie [Kendall? I guess I don’t keep up with the Kardashians…] Jenner and how it completely marginalizes the real struggles minorities continue to face, particularly in regard to Black women. Fascinating piece for discussion or for writing style emulation.
-Political pieces
-Famous speeches
-Fiction and Nonfiction books
-Poems
-Research papers/articles
-Children’s books (If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Numeroff is a fun mentor text for cause and effect writing, The Important Book by Margaret Wise Brown offers a means of capturing what the most important thing about a given object/concept/event, etc.)
-Student exemplars
-Teacher exemplars
-Proposals, resumes, business letters/cover letters

I’m sure I’m just scratching the surface of what might be used to show our students what good writing looks like. Thinking about the writing students need to do in your content, what are mentor texts you might use? What would you highlight within those mentor texts for students to imitate in their own writing?

http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/apr14/vol71/num07/Making-the-Most-of-Mentor-Texts.aspx

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Learning to Write versus Writing to Learn

It's no great secret that the ability to communicate effectively through writing is a lifelong skill-one that is highly desirable and in demand for employers. Our continued conversation around writing data and growing students as writers in our building supports this knowledge.

We also focus on the importance of incorporating a number of relevant writing opportunities across the content areas so that students are accustomed to writing frequently and receiving formative feedback on that writing.

Today’s tip focuses on the difference between learning to write and writing to learn. The former refers to activities that result in more polished products (summative assessment). While all content area teachers are required to teach students how to write specific forms of writing, it is the responsibility of teachers of English to instruct students in the mechanics of the English language. Content area teachers, then, support this instruction and reinforce what is taught in the English classroom.

Conversely, writing to learn activities are designed for meta-cognitive effect. For example, students may record their thinking, reflect on their learning, try to make sense of new content, etc. This type of writing, if assessed at all, would be used for formative assessment. Furthermore, these types of writing can and should be used in all content area classrooms.

Some hallmarks of writing to learn tasks are:

-short
-spontaneous
-informal
-exploratory
-personal
-one draft
-unedited
-ungraded

For additional learning on writing to learn tasks, check out this PowerPoint.

Consider: What types of writing to learn activities are you currently engaging students in? What else might work for your content?

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A few years ago, I set up book clubs for my 7th grade students. After reading Donalyn Miller's The Book Whisperer, I was sure that I found the "right way" to help my students become the community of readers she frequently referenced. I had built in choice, taken away confining literature circle "roles," and was looking forward to the authentic conversations that would take place between students no longer encumbered by graded accountability measures.

However...when my students first met with each other, I heard a lot of silence. Prompting and probing here and there, I was disappointed with the lack of depth in their responses. Furthermore, they would only respond when I posed a question. Nobody countered an opinion. Nobody framed a follow up question. Nobody even spoke up to agree with a fellow classmate.

And then, with brutal clarity, it dawned upon me that the conversations I wanted to happen would never take place unless I explicitly taught students HOW to converse in an academic setting. From that point forward, I began designing mini lessons to model the speaking and listening techniques I wanted students to use with one another. We practiced the skills with a whole group mentor text and ultimately, within small book club groups. As conversations improved throughout the year, it was evident that students were growing not in their capacity to think critically, but to speak and listen with empathy and respect.

One text that offers excellent insights on how to foster these types of conversations with students is Academic Conversations: Classroom Talk That Fosters Critical Thinking and Content Understandings by Jeff Zwiers and Marie Crawford. The book offers a practical rationale and road map for starting academic conversations with students and includes lesson activities, effective conversation tasks, and developing academic grammar and vocabulary through conversation. Additional chapters focus specifically on Language Arts, History, and Science, but the ideas can be easily contextualized in any content area classroom.

Today's tip (attached) includes the core academic conversation skills, frames for prompting the skill, and response frames. How might academic conversations look and sound in your classes? Which skills do you feel are the most critical for students to master?

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Revisiting Text Sets

Yes, we did already share a tip on text sets and how they might be used with your students. However, some tips are simply worth revisiting and looking at through another lens.

This is is the definition of text sets we shared in our earlier post:

“A text set is a collection of related texts organized around a topic or line of inquiry. The line of inquiry of a given set is determined by an anchor text—a rich, complex grade-level text. The anchor text is the focus of a close reading with instructional supports in the classroom” (www.ccss.org).

Recently, Theresa shared another resource with me that explored the use of text sets through "layering" texts. Though the examples provided in the post are history-specific, the concept of layering involves exposing students to a number of resources about the topic/concept/time period/etc. represented in a variety of formats.

Rather than reading one account of the Civil War, for instance, students can explore a number of different accounts, artifacts, and resources about the time period for a more comprehensive experience.

What might "layering" texts look like in your classroom? How might students interact with the texts and with one another as they build their understanding of the central idea?

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Conferring, Part 2: The Writing Conference

Our last lit tip focused specifically on learning more about what students are comprehending, questioning, etc. from the texts they are reading. For Part 2, we will look at what might happen during a writing conference with a student.

In some cases, the teacher has a specific writing target for her students and hence, the conference has predetermined questions designed to guide the conversation. The teacher's aim here is determine to what extent the target is being met (or not met).

However, sometimes the student guides the conversation based on what he or she is is struggling with or wondering about. Penny Kittle, author of several books about reading and writing at the secondary level, demonstrates how different a writing conference might look based on how the student opens the conversation in the transcript linked below. (If you are someone who prefers watching videos to reading transcripts, the clips are available on her website, www.pennykittle.net.)

She explains how she purposefully tries to maintain a calm atmosphere during the conference so not to cause the student to feel rushed or pressured, but also is realistic with her time and spends no more than 3-4 minutes on each conference.

Questions to consider:
What might these conferences look like in your classroom?

What do you anticipate students might struggle with when given a specific writing task and what support might you offer them during a conference?

Which students do you anticipate needing the most urgent support? (These may be the students you chose to confer with first.)

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Conferring, Part 1: The Reading Conference

We've all heard the research: conferring with students, one on one or in small groups, is the best way to truly gauge what they are understanding, struggling with, questioning, thinking about, etc. As secondary teachers, however, we may have received little (or no) training on how to confer with students and what to ask to help extend their thinking.

In her book, So What Do They Really Know, teacher/author Cris Tovani explains, "The trick is taking a few minutes to notice what they need. Before I can give useful feedback, I first must listen to what they have to say about the work they are doing." Tovani emphasizes that though the art of conferring can take awhile to perfect, even a teacher who confers badly is preferable to one who does not confer at all. Her advice is to just dive in and start trying!

There are countless questions one might ask in a reading conference with a student, but a general one to launch any conference is simply, "How's it going?" From there, the conference might take any direction. The resources included in this week's lit tip are an article (also by Cris Tovani) which provides rationale for questioning and some potential questions to use during conferences, as well as a short video of a 9th grade teacher conferring with her small groups of her students.

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Additional resource for Conferring, Part 1: The Reading Conference. This short video was referenced in the initial post for this topic. In it, a 9th grade English teacher questions small groups of her students about Romeo and Juliet to extend their thinking about the text?

Where might conferring be applicable in your classroom/content? What questions might you ask to extend the thinking of your students?
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