Monday, August 24, 2015

#SummerPD: Student Growth vs. Student Grading

DATA. One little word can strike fear in the hearts of many teachers.

Actually, not really. Not anymore. We’re a data-driven society.

With pressure from administration to provide data on everything from math fact automaticity to reading literature comprehension, teachers are always on the lookout for ways to measure student growth and achievement. (Data Binders, anyone?)

But there’s a difference between student growth and student achievement. Whereas achievement is a student’s performance as a snapshot in time, measured against a standard (i.e. state testing), student growth is his progress measured over time, and only against himself.

This is a fundamental debate, one that educators will see for a long time, but as a former special education teacher, I truly believe we should focus on our students’ progress, not just proficiency. One reason is that the two top predictors of student success are entirely out of teachers’ control: parent education, and socio-economic status. The other factors? Reading frequency [lots of independent reading in the classroom!]; vocabulary [lots of academic vocabulary in the classroom!]; writing [lots of opportunity for writing in the classroom!]; and student collaboration [lots of discussions in the classroom!]. The common theme here is in the classroom, where teachers can monitor and facilitate.

Grading Is Necessary

However, we can’t deny that grading is necessary. Accountability is also an influence in student performance. Which brings us back to data.

What are teachers doing with all that data? In many schools, by the time teachers receive the information from state testing, their students have already moved on to the next grade. So the real attention should instead be on formative assessments that are ongoing throughout the school year. The results are usually instant, and can be used to make decisions about future instruction.

Classroom Example

I’ve struggled with writing instruction, and have sought out strategies to make it more tangible for my students. Writing instruction is a process, and different kids need a unique timetable for taking over control. Not only that, but we emphasize the process, and how it takes first, second, third and even more drafts to get it right. So I’ve been left with how to measure their growth. With all of the grammar rules we cover, all the spelling lists, and all the writing skills throughout the year, there’s no way to independently produce a perfect piece of writing in one or two hours. Not to mention the number of hours it takes to read and respond to every student’s writing every day.

The Solution? Be More Strategic

In order for students to gain any benefit from my feedback, they need to hear it within a day or two of submitting their work. So I have decided that I need to be more strategic in how I provide that feedback.

·         A student does not need to submit a 2-page essay (or even a 5-paragraph essay in 3rd grade!) to demonstrate learning. A shorter piece will suffice.

·         I will give my students specific “Look Fors” before they begin writing. That is, I will tell them exactly what skills I want them to target, and I will only look for those skills in their submitted work.

·         I will have my students highlight within their writing where they feel they’ve demonstrated the concept that we’re focusing on properly. This emphasizes their learning and ensures that students are as attentive to the concepts as we hope them to be.

By being consistent with my expectations and how I practice them in my classroom, and by giving focused feedback, my students will better understand what is required off them, and they’ll be more able to demonstrate their learning. It’s a grading versus growth win-win!

Friday, August 7, 2015

#SummerPD: Student Engagement 3C

Our school uses the Charlotte Danielson Framework for Teaching. We’ve had Professional Development workshops that focused on it, especially since Pennsylvania implemented the “Educator Effectiveness System.”  I attended another PD workshop this summer, but this one focused primarily on Domain 3c: Engaging Students in Learning.

I’m going to keep this post brief, since many of you have read or heard about the Danielson Framework ad nauseam. My focus will be on some interesting key points that I gleaned from the workshop.

We were asked to describe what it meant for students to be engaged in a lesson. Phrases such as “discussions on topic,” “hands on, kinesthetic learning,” “tapping into different learning styles,” and “students collaborating and asking questions,” were a few that many of us agreed on.


Although we were spot-on with several of our descriptions, there were a few ideas that we held on to that turn out to be false. Primarily, student engagement does not equal “hands on” or even “collaboration,” although those things can be a part of what constitutes engagement. The idea is that students don’t always have to LOOK engaged to BE engaged.

Essential Point #1: Students must be intellectually active in their learning, and the content of a lesson must be challenging.

Think: “Minds-on” rather than “hands-on.” No worksheets here.

Essential Point #2: A lesson must have a discernable structure (a beginning, middle and end) that includes scaffolding, and must have a logical pace that neither rushes nor drags.

Think: Closure, when students have an opportunity to reflect on what they’ve learned. In our rush to pack everything in in one school day, this piece is often overlooked.

Essential Point #3: Students must make their thinking “visible.”

Think: Pay attention to what students are saying and doing. Student enthusiasm and problem solving are key. Have students who are working collaboratively use a “team pencil and paper” so that they’re truly working together.

Of course, we know that student engagement isn’t just for formal observations, and that not every lesson can be fully engaging to every student every day. But boiled down to these key points, it makes that task much more manageable!

Some other interesting points to note:

Watch at 38:15 Ms. Warburton’s system of getting her students focused on her without interrupting their collaboration.

Check out (no pun intended) this PDF of Ordeal by Cheque by Wuther Crue. We were asked to decipher the storyline based on the checks written by Lawrence Exeter. Although there is no known “true” meaning to what the author intended, it provides a wonderful opportunity to get creative!

Check back for my next #SummerPD topic:


Monday, June 29, 2015

#SummerPD: Cross-Content Reading Strategies

Although many of the strategies that were presented during this summer PD workshop have been around awhile, I was encouraged by several that I hadn’t heard of before, or that were tweaked in a way that made them fresh.

ABC Brainstorm

This activity (and any variations of it) is meant to help students activate their prior knowledge about a topic. It’s a visual tool that can be done as a pre-assessment before a unit begins, added to throughout a unit, or as a culminating activity to wrap up a unit of study, making it a valuable study guide.

You can use a preprinted graphic organizer for younger students, or simply have older students write the letters of the alphabet down along the margin line of a piece of composition paper. Each version leaves space for students to write words or phrases associated with the given topic that begin with each of the letters of the alphabet.

You could decide to have students work independently at first, or to pair up in partnerships or small groups from the beginning. Once they’ve had a chance to record their list of words and phrases, students should be asked to share out, so that others can add to their list.

If you use interactive notebooks in your classroom for social studies and science, you could have students add this list to their notebooks. You might decide to color-code it with words added before in red, words added during the unit in blue, and words added at the end in green, for example. There’s a lot of possibilities with these!
Double-Entry Journals
Double-Entry Journals have been traditionally for middle-school students, but can be used at the elementary level with support. They enable students to record their impressions of the text as they read, enhancing their engagement with it. While the upper-level journals are more open-ended, you could scaffold it by creating an anchor chart of suggested items from the text and possible responses, or give them specific quotes from the text and prompts or questions to answer.


Bookmarks are similar to Double-Entry Journals in that they help students stop throughout their reading to consider its meaning. They can be used effectively with new vocabulary in nonfiction text, and as with the journals, students can self-select the words, or terms can be chosen for them.

I use my bookmarks to support my students’ understanding of text elements we’ve covered in our reading workshop and guided reading lessons, and keeps students accountable for their independent reading. 
Anticipation Guides

One of my favorite strategies that was discussed at my workshop was the use of Anticipation Guides. They can help stimulate students’ curiosity about a new topic in content areas. They can be used in both fiction and nonfiction, but in the area of expository text, these guides can get students involved by having them think about their opinions on certain topics in social studies, for example. A more common way to incorporate anticipatory guides is to state accurate and incorrect “facts” about a topic and have students respond whether they believe each to be true or false. This serves as a type of K-W-L.

I’ve used these guides without the paper-and-pencil as a way to get kids moving. I have my students all line up on one side of the room and instruct them to walk to the other side if they disagree with a comment that I read, to stay where they are if they agree, and to move to the middle of the room if they neither agree nor disagree. I’ve used it with the picture book Voices in the Park, asking my students prior to reading it whether they agreed or disagreed with how a person handles a situation that they would eventually find out happens in the story. They become quite surprised when their initial perception isn’t always their only view!

These, of course, are only a fraction of the many strategies teachers use to support their students with cross-content reading. I’d love to hear your thoughts on how you utilize these strategies in a unique way in your classroom!

Check back for my next #SummerPD topic:


Saturday, June 27, 2015


For teachers, summer is a time to recharge after ten months of hard work. For most of us, summer isn’t all relaxation and toes in the sand. Many of us look at summer as a time to hone our craft. We read professional books, revamp our curricula, and search Teachers Pay Teachers for just the right items to use with our students (or we create it ourselves!).

If you follow me on Instagram, you know that I recently sat through four days’ worth of Professional Development during my first week of summer “break.” At the beginning of one of the six half-day workshops that I attended, the facilitator asked everyone to introduce themselves and to explain why they decided to take that particular academy. Most responses were “It fit my schedule,” or “I didn’t want to come back in August.” I was in the small minority of teachers who responded with “I’d like to learn something.”

No judgment from me, since our differences make us unique. I consider myself a life-long learner, and even after nine years of teaching, I’m always looking for ways to improve my practice.

Taking six PD academies the week after school let out was intense, with a ton of information to digest. I realized I’d need to take lots of notes, and return to it afterward to personalize it in a way that I could use in my own classroom.

Over the next few days, I’ll be posting my thoughts, along with some really interesting ideas that I’m going to try using with my students this coming school year.

Deconstructing Professional Development Workshop Experiences – a 6-Part Series

Check back for each of the topics:

·         Cross-Content Reading Strategies

·         Student Engagement (3C of the Charlotte Danielson model)

·         SMART Notebook Advances

·         Student Growth vs. Student Grading

·         Setting Expectations: Instructional Non-negotiables

·         Academic Vocabulary

I look forward to hearing your feedback, too!

Thursday, April 9, 2015

I’m so excited about how pretty my classroom looks right now!

This idea came to me last year after the construction paper that was covering my bulletin boards fell off the wall. I was so frustrated that I just tore the rest down, and took the bulletin board displays with it.

Overreact much?

Why am I putting up with the frustration of creating educational and attractive bulletin board displays, only to have to cover them up in March or April? Or worse, take down my boards completely, then have no desire to recreate a new board display for a mere month or two?

So a thought came to me: rather than cover my boards with drab construction paper, I should cover them with beautiful fabric!


I bought the fabric over spring break and worked on my project without the benefit of testing it out as I went. My original plan was to use grommets to hang from the hooks above the bulletin boards, but unfortunately, my boards are too tall for the width of the fabric. In order to sew a hem, I’d need the extra inches.

I resolved that by attaching ribbon to the top edge. Originally, I decided that I could purchase Command hooks to attach above the boards. But that didn’t work as planned either, since there was the long length of bulletin board above them.


Simple, if primitive, fix: I attached the ribbon to the bulletin board. #easypeasy


I’m very pleased with the final product! I can easily pull the curtains aside to reference the boards each day after testing, and my classroom looks bright and cheerful, even with all of my pretty displays covered up!


Saturday, March 28, 2015

Close Reading That Sticks

Are you integrating close reading lessons into your ELA instruction?

I began this year very enthusiastic about doing close reading lessons with my students. I attended a summer academy to learn about it, and I did a lot of research to ensure that I was implementing it correctly and effectively. 

The idea of having students write notes while they read a complex text sounds obvious to experienced readers like you and me, but we've had our whole lives to develop that understanding. Kids love writing on sticky notes, so I knew their engagement would be high, but that alone doesn't guarantee success. The Common Core is now expecting eight and nine year olds to analyze a text with expertise. It's not that easy; they aren't sure where to start. 

I had done a few lessons initially but felt like my students had no real direction without my guidance at each step. While that makes sense for early lessons, I didn't feel like they would be able to be independent with reading closely. And that's the whole point of any reading lesson, isn't it?

I had seen some reading strategy bookmarks on Pinterest, and even some great text marking bookmarks. But I felt like these were too extensive for third graders just learning how to "read to learn." Sometimes it's best to start out with the basics, and grow from there. 

That was the inspiration for me to create simple bookmarks with clear visual cues to help my students use sticky notes when they're reading closely. 

I noticed a difference immediately! Before using my bookmarks, my students understood "reading for the gist" the first time, but their second and third reads were not as focused without a game plan. Their bookmarks solve that problem. It gives them a clear and definite guide to what to write using sticky notes, and keeps the process simple. 

Close Reading Bookmarks in Action! 

Focusing on four main areas, and consistently using the same visual cues, my students are better able to analyze a complex text, breaking it down into its most basic ideas. The bookmarks make an abstract concept tangible, and break the process down into more manageable tasks.

I'm excited again about doing close reading lessons with my students. And that's a great feeling, indeed. 

I'd love to know how you've found success doing close reading lessons in your classroom! 

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Have You Ever Done A Book Talk?

Book Talks are an excellent way to engage your students in reading books they otherwise would have no interest in reading. 

It's a perfect "filler" activity for transitions, and will help settle your students down from an energetic activity like recess. 

The process is simple, and takes no more than five minutes of class time, so you can implement it at any point during the day. Once your students know what to expect from a Book Talk, they won't want to miss it! 

Here's how it works: 
I read aloud an interesting or mysterious excerpt from a chapter book that piques my students curiosity and leaves them wanting to read more. I stop reading at the "good" part, without giving away what happens. Anyone who's interested can take the book back to their desk for their next book. 

Let's face it: We all judge books by their covers. It's human nature. But teachers know that a book's cover doesn't always live up to the story inside. We know that, but not all kids know that.

A Book Talk is a great way to get kids past judging a book by its cover! 

Try it! I think you just might get "hooked"!