Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Step In, Step Out: A Tool for Deep Thinking

One my absolute favorite parts of teaching is the collaboration and sharing. I have improved my teaching so much over the last couple of years thanks to the amazing educators who selflessly share their ideas with the rest of us. Last weekend I discovered Micheal, author of The Thinker Builder. He has lots of great ideas and resources, but I want to share one particular idea with you that has been working wonders in my classroom: Step In, Step Out.

With the new demands of the STAAR (for fellow Texans) and the Common Core for most of you, students are challenged to think about texts in a completely new way. They not only have to comprehend a text on a literal level, they must be able to make inferences, draw conclusions, use text features, etc. Beyond that, they are expected to analyze the text from the perspective of an author. Seeing a text in this way requires a much deeper level of thinking and can be confusing and difficult for students.

Enter: Step In, Step Out

The idea Michael came up with is purely brilliant. The simple terminology of "step in" and "step out" gives the students a way to anchor their thinking. It has also made my explanation of the kinds of thinking I expect much clearer.

Let's take a closer look at this strategy:

The first part of the strategy is the Step In. When we first pick up a text, it's time to Step In. Let's see what the text is all about. If we are reading fiction, we are looking at the character choices and actions and how they drive the story. We're looking at relationships and plot elements. Basically, what's happening? Michael has come up with a nice set of questions that challenge the students' thinking when they are "in" the story. The visual of the door has driven home to idea that we should be immersed in the story, seeing the choices the characters are making and the effects of those choices on others.

After we have read the text, had great conversations, and students understand the major ideas, it's time to Step Out. Now we step back and analyze the text from the mind of the author. The questions Michael poses are great for critical thinking. I especially love the question that asks about what the author is trying to do at certain parts of the story.The students have to seriously think about the choices the author made and how those choices added to the overall effectiveness of the text, or sometimes lack thereof. These questions tap into that deeper level of thinking and can leave even your highest achievers silent in thought for a few seconds (gotta love that!)  The kids love the opportunity to "judge" the choices of others, and this is a great way to apply that skill!

We used this strategy last week with poetry. We read a poem called "Oak Tree" in which the tree was speaking to a child and reflecting on how the child had grown. When we "stepped in," we took notice of the speaker (who happened to be the tree) and what he was doing. Why was he talking to a child? What is he implying with his comments to the child? How do we even know he's talking to a child? The conversation was great.

During our 'step out' conversation, we came to the question of author's purpose. I explained to the students that the poet made a deliberate choice when she sat down to write the poem. She could have easily written the poem from her perspective. That probably would have been eaiser. However, this poet chose to take on the persona of the tree. Why in the world would a poet do that? One of my students who normally offers up very surface level comments, suggested that the poet probably had a special tree when she was growing up that meant a lot to her and she wanted to write about it in a more creative way than just describing it. Yes! Beautiful! I could have cried.

We also discussed the author's choice of poetic devices. We noticed which devices were used and which were not and how those devices contributed to the feeling and mood of the poem.

Thanks to the "Step In, Step Out" strategy, our conversation was revved up to a whole new level.

This week we are reading expository texts. The strategy applies wonderfully! Today we "stepped in" to an article about the Great Chicago Fire, so kids were leaving tracks all over the place sharing the new things they were learning. They asked questions, shared some of their background knowledge, made connections, clarified the meaning of unfamiliar words, identified cause and effect relationships, etc. We were definitely "in" the text!

Tomorrow, we are going to "step out" of the text. Some of the questions I'm going to ask include:
-Why did the author choose to write this text?
-What text features did the author choose to include?
-Why did they include these features? How do they help us as readers?
-Are there any other text features the author could have included? Why? How would they help?
-How did the author structure the text? Is it story-like, or are facts just presented in no particular order? Why? How does the structure affect your interest level in the article?
-Are particular paragraphs or sections more important than others?
-How would the article be different if certain parts were left out?

You get the idea!

 I'm so excited, i can hardly wait to hear what they will offer up!

The simple terminology of "stepping in" and "stepping out" of the text has given my students a springboard for deep conversations and propelled our thinking. It can be used on any text, which makes it very versatile. I am so grateful to Michael for sharing this fabulous strategy (for FREE, y'all!). Hop on over to his blog and read his post about the strategy. He's able to explain it much better than I am and you will love his writing style. He also includes some differentiated reading response sheets to use with this strategy and a genius pop up card to help you remember those wonderful questions!

While you're there, check out the rest of his awesome resources. You won't be disappointed!

Thanks, Michael, for sharing your ideas so selflessly! You have truly made a difference in our classroom!

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Math, Grammar, and Reading Skill Reviews- Free for You!

A few years ago, I came across Sunny Days in Second Grade's Weekly Word Wizards and Math Magic sets. They are just amazing! I have used them for the last few years and absolutely loved them. In the past, my students have been a bit below level. Sunny's sets are made for second graders, but my third graders still loved them. They covered lots of the same skills we hit in third grade and provided a great review of what they had learned in second grade. My students literally cheered when I would pass them out! They were a valuable resource. I think she makes them specifically for first grade as well. They are worth checking out! 

This year, I needed something with just a bit more challenge. I still wanted to use the same format because the kids love it and it's a great way to squeeze in a variety of skills on one paper. So, I attempted to make my slightly grown-up version of Sunny's. I hope she doesn't mind! Because I tailored these specifically to my class, some of the skills may not fit what you and your class are working on, but I wanted to offer them to you anyway. 

 One of my goals for myself and this blog is to do a lot more sharing of free stuff. It's great when I put lots of time and energy into a specific product and can offer it for sale, but in reality, I make LOTS of things that I would never take money for. When I make something for my kiddos, I know another teacher somewhere could use it somehow. That's what teachers do- we share! So, my resolution (never mind that it's February) is to do a lot more sharing when I can, so I'm starting with these. 

I have only made a few, but you can get a general idea of the overall skills I cover from the images. 

The word study sets cover antonyms, synonyms, analogies, pronouns, verbs, capitalization, common/proper nouns, abc order, prefixes, suffixes, homophones, reading vocabulary, etc. Not every set is exactly the same, depending on what I felt like my kids needed to practice.  

The math sets cover a variety of skills including addition and subtraction with regrouping, subtraction across zero, rounding to the nearest ten and hundred, comparing and ordering numbers, money, time, measurement, word problems, multiplication, division, fact families, etc. 

CLICK HERE to get a copy for yourself. 

My kids are having great success with these and I am able to pinpoint the exact skills specific students are struggling with. Because the format is so versatile, I can easily create individualized sets for different students depending on what they need extra practice with.

When you download, it will be in PDF form. If you would like me to send you the PowerPoint version so you can edit them for your class, leave your e-mail in the comments and I will send them your way!

I also went through and added all of the previous freebies I have offered in the past to a new page. Just click on the 'Freebies' tab up at the top of the page and they are all there for you! I hope you can find something useful for you and your students!

Have a great Sunday!

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Using Short Excerpts for Close Reading and Leaving "Tracks" = Pure Magic!

I'm back! I'm alive! Life has been crazy, but I finally have time to sit and share with you something that I am so excited about!!

In the past several weeks, I've had a revelation in my reading instruction. I'm kicking myself that I didn't do this kind of thing earlier in the year because it is working wonders for my students. This might take me a while to fully explain, so if you're interested, strap yourself in!

Before I get ahead of myself, let me give you some back story first...

I have taught third grade reading for several years now. I LOVE teaching reading- mainly because I love to read and get kids hooked on great literature. I love the discussion and conversation that my students and I have when we are reading together. When we are discussing a text as a class, sparks fly, thoughtful responses are offered up, miraculous insights are passed between students- sometimes it's almost magical. I could almost cry thinking about the amazing experiences I have had with my students when we are analyzing a text together.

It's on this high that I send my students back to their seats with their own story to read with hopes that the same energy will continue during their independent reading. It never failed- the energy would fizzle. The kids would read the story, answer any questions I had for them, and then quickly return to their own independent reading book. Where was the excitement?! Where was the thinking? What I wanted was for the kids to get the same experience reading by themselves as they did with me.

I started experimenting with leaving symbols during reading. We had revisited a lesson from the Comprehension Toolkit and I reemphasized how reading is thinking. Just like animals leave tracks when they walk in the snow, we can leave tracks of our thinking as we read. As a class, we came up with some symbols to use when we read.

The kids came up with their own symbols they wanted to use for different thoughts. Each student made their own bookmark showing the symbols they would use and what they would mean. Then they took this idea and used sticky notes as they read to record their thinking.

The sticky note thing was working well, but it still didn't feel right. The kids were showing their thinking, but it just wasn't quite what I wanted. Then I remembered something!

A week before the Christmas break, we had a data meeting with a consultant. She threw out an idea that really stuck with me. At the time we were discussing the major problem that I'm sure every team in the world faces each year- how to teach the students who are reading significantly below level. She said in so many words- if the kids are supposed to be reading on a level M or N, let's pull a page straight out of a novel on that level and have them read that. The idea was meant to give the kids exposure to on-level text in a less overwhelming way. The idea intrigued me so much that I tried it at home over the break. I chose a random book from my shelf, flipped until I found what looked to be an interesting page, copied it, and read it. My brain was on fire!

Here's what happened: Because I had sneaked a glimpse of the title, I was already making some predictions before I even read the words. As I read, I had no idea what the plot was or who the characters were. The first time I read it, it made no sense to me. The second time I read it, my brain was revved up. I started piecing things together and inferring like crazy. After the third time I read, I had constructed what I thought to be a basic description of the characters and the plot. It was amazing! Remember, I literally copied ONE page from a novel- ONE!

I was so excited that I took the paper down to my husband and made him my guinea pig. This time, I didn't give him any clues about the title, I just handed him the paper and asked him to read it and tell me what he thought the book was about. He did the same kind of inferring and predicting and as a reading teacher, my heart was jumping up and down! I knew I wanted to try it with my kids.

When I got back to school, I went straight to the science fiction section of my classroom library and searched through a book that I thought would be interesting. I found a page where the characters were in the middle of a war and had somehow become trapped in a net in the trees. I re-typed the page and used it with my students. I talked with the students about using the same symbols we had used on our sticky notes on this one page.

One of the characters was holding a dagger to the throat of an elderly man. Immediately questions started flying- Why would someone be threatening an elderly man? How did they get there? What was this "war" about? What is a dagger? The conversations were priceless. The kids had to use context clues and text evidence in a way that they had never done before. They only had this one page of text to guide their thinking. Anything they said had to be tied to what was in front of them. Even for my struggling readers, the amount of text was not overwhelming, so they were excited and jumping into the discussion. Together, they had come up with an idea of the plot- just from reading one page! We had made inferences about each character based on their actions and words, inferred the meaning of unknown words, and made predictions about what had occurred before this page and what would happen after. At the end of our discussion the kids were literally begging to know which book that page came out of because they wanted to know what would happen next. Could it get any better than that?!

Not only was the discussion rich, but because the students had generated symbols to document their thinking, when we were finished, the tracks left behind on their paper showed evidence of all the great things we had discussed. It truly was one of the most amazing days I have had as a reading teacher. The rest of the week I found similar excerpts from books and we did the same thing with a new text each day.

By the end of the week, the students were so accustomed to leaving their tracks that when they read by themselves, the level of excitement was finally there! They spent time really analyzing the text and showing me their thoughts by using their symbols. I wouldn't let them share anything orally until they had left some kid of track on their paper to document that thought. Each student developed their own system of symbols and I was seeing the kids in a whole new way.  I was able to gain more insight into what the kids were thinking without them having to say a single word. I felt like I had finally found the answer to keeping up the engagement during independent reading!

The next week, I took this method into a story we have read every year from our Reading Street series called A Symphony of Whales. Rather than reading the story from the book like we normally do, I decided to take only key excerpts from the story to read each day.  I retyped the sections of the story I wanted the kids to read. No illustrations, no title, just the plain text.

The first day, we read the first two pages of the story. I didn't tell the kids anything to front load their thinking or stimulate their background knowledge. I literally said, "Today we will read a new story. I want you to read it to yourself and show your tracks as you read." And off they went.

As the students read, their pencils went flying. Because we had practiced using symbols to show our thinking so much in the previous weeks, they had the tools to show their thoughts. After the students read independently, they shared their tracks with a partner.

Because they had such a limited amount of information, the students had to make predictions about what the story would be about and make inferences about the character and plot. We learned that the character lives in a very cold place and their culture is very different than ours. The kids had to visualize using only the text evidence because there were no pictures. We learned that she possessed a special gift that no one else in the village had- the ability to hear whales. That's where we stopped the first day. We discussed that every story must have some sort of problem, so we made predictions about what the problem could be. The kids inferred that it might have something to do with the whales because she had this unique gift.

The next day, we read the next excerpt. Somehow the main character, Glashka, had come upon hundreds of whales trapped in a bay that was surrounded by ice. Because I had purposely left out the part that explained how she found them, the kids again had to infer. They also adjusted their predictions about the plot from the previous day now that we had this additional information about the whales. The kids explained to me that because of her gift, Glashka was able to hear the whales calling for help. She probably would take action to help them because she obviously cared about the whales. No guidance from me, no prompting. The entire discussion came from them. Because they didn't have the next part of the story, they automatically made predictions. It was beautiful!

The following day we read the next section. This day I finally remembered to take pictures of what some of the kids were marking on their papers.

As you can see from the pictures, the text is plain. This is important because the kids have nothing to guide their thinking but the words. You can also see the type of thinking being shown. The kids are using symbols to show their surprise or confusion, but also leaving phrases to show evidence of inference or connections. Without writing long sentences or responses, I get a glimpse into their true understanding of the text. 

What you can't see from these pictures is evidence of the rich discussion that came after the reading. Because there is only a small amount of text, the kids have to use their tracks as a springboard for discussion. On this particular day, we gained even more insight to the problem in the story. The whales are trapped and getting weaker by the day. We also see a key trait of the main character displayed as she uses her own limited food supply to feed the whales. Seeing that the kids labeled this without any prompting from me shows that they are truly thinking as they read. 

On the back of the papers, the students had the choice to write additional thoughts, responses, or predictions. I don't have pictures of those, but you can trust that what the students' responses were more rich and authentic than anything I could have prompted them to write with my own questions. They were already putting pieces of the story together and predicting how the story would end. Most of them already noticed what I would have questioned them about! 

The last day of the week, we read the last excerpt I had chosen. It showed that the whales had been saved and set free. I purposely left out the part that described just how that came to be. The kids went wild with predictions. 

I then revealed to the kids that this story actually came out of our basal reader. The kids  jumped up and begged to read it. Yes- begged!!  I had left out many major pieces of the story, so the kids couldn't wait to read it all the way through to see if their predictions were correct. They almost couldn't contain their excitement as they searched feverishly through the table of contents to find the story. When they finally found it and saw the illustrations, many "I knew it's!" and "OOhhhs" and "So this is what it looks like's" and "I was right's!" filled the air. It was a truly magical moment. Never before had I had students so eager to read a story. Never before had they had such an appreciation of the illustrations and how they added to our understanding of the story. The room was silent as the kids soaked up every word of the story and analyzed every illustration. 

This week we followed the same format with another story from our basal. I wish I would have taken pictures of the kids' tracks this week because they were even more refined than the week we read about the whales. It just gets better and better!  

This simple strategy has majorly shifted my instruction. When I use excerpts like this, the students are truly guiding their own thinking. Even when they read a text silently to themselves, I can see thinking that I used to only hear in our group discussions. Hopefully I can remember my camera on Monday so I can show you more of what I'm talking about. :)

I urge you to try this strategy with your students just to see! I never imagined that I would be getting these kinds of results, but it is truly the best thing that has ever happened to my reading instruction!

Happy Saturday!