Saturday, December 13, 2014

A Funny Thing Happened As I Spied on My Students . . .

     I know I'm supposed to monitor my students' technology use, but outside the occasional thrill of ejecting a kid from his personal email, using Hapara -- Chromebook's version of Teacher Dashboard -- has always made me feel kind of creepy.  In my mind, I'm that grumpy battleaxe from Jef Mallett's Frazz, wandering up and down the aisles of my digital classroom, rapping the knuckles of all who stray from the virtual straight and narrow.

     "FUN?  We'll have none of that here!"

     Then something unexpected happened.

     One of my objectives this year is to teach my students how to find what they want on the Internet.  I want them to accumulate a number of reliable websites and master the art of crafting the perfect search phrase.  In my opinion, the best -- the only? -- way to achieve this is by providing opportunities to develop the knack.

     Brainstorming for a pros and cons essay on "Keeping Animals in Captivity," the students had just finished summarizing a news article on Siberian tigers who'd starved to death in a struggling Chinese zoo.  Their next task was to find an online news article to support institutions like zoos and aquariums.

     After the initial round of "Is she or isn't she looking?" -- EJECT!  EJECT!  EJECT! -- the students began bumbling their way around the Web.  Except -- this time, some weren't bumbling.  One student consulted a classroom poster for the web address to our local newspaper.  Hearkening back to our fall research paper, another went straight to

     While I do have an aversion to spying, I can never resist the urge to butt in on my students' thinking.  I know . . . but this moment was too good to pass up:

     "Hey!  I see someone remembered!"

     Voice from the back of the room:  "Yeah, but there wasn't anything good there."

     "Oh.  Well, what about  Has anybody thought about going to the newspaper archive?"

     (Of course, someone has, you dissembler -- you see it right there on the screen!)

     The students' screen choices started to take direction.  Kids began calling out search ideas.  Other kids listened.  Wait a minute!  Was this that "educational dialogue" thing I keep hearing about?

     Finally, Grace struck gold.  She'd stumbled across a webpage for a large urban zoo:

     "Hey, Everybody!  I bet all the big zoos have news articles about how they've helped animals!"

     "Yeah!  They're not gonna print any bad stuff;  that's for sure! - ha-ha!"

     I relaxed at my desk.  No longer an odious online operative, I'd become a "guide on the side," shepherding my students along the path of responsible digital citizenship --

     "SQUEEEEEE!  Y'all!  The San Diego Zoo has an animal cam!"



Get ready to explore that time-worm admonition:  Don't Judge a Book by Its Cover!


Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Boy vs. Book: The Joseph Evans Story

Joseph Evans’ childhood in Cardiff, South Wales, was typical of most boys: video games, anime -- and reading?  Noooot so much.  Like most adolescent boys, reading languished near the bottom of Joseph’s “To Do” list -- if it made the list at all.   No big deal, right?  Well, at last check, guys like Joseph are scoring increasingly worse than girls every year on standardized reading tests.  They’re more likely to be held back and/or placed in special education classes, and they’re less likely than girls to go to college.

So how, exactly, did Joseph go from statistically predictable “adolescent male non-reader” to published author of two well-received science fiction novels?  What sparked the metamorphosis? The Sustained Reader decided to hop online and make a virtual pest of herself at Waterstones, the Cardiff bookstore where our hero toils to support his reading and writing habit.
Joseph and his proud mum

The Sustained Reader (TSR):  Joseph, once the school year begins, Language Arts teachers will face their yearly struggle with non-reading boys.  We need help!  Can you recall a particular event that sparked your change from reluctant reader to lifelong reader, novelist, and purveyor of books for young people?

Joseph Evans (JE):  Yes, I can pinpoint a very specific event!  As you mentioned, most of my childhood was spent addicted to videogames and anime.  Books just didn’t keep my attention. My mum, our school librarian at the time, was constantly on the lookout for something to interest me. 

One day, she saw a YA series called Broken Sky, by Chris Wooding, and immediately bought me the first book.  Why?  Because the cover illustrations were in a manga style.

This definitely got my interest.  Books I’d previously attempted to read had just felt old-fashioned, outdated, and irrelevant to me.  The authors always seemed to be preaching or teaching -- way too much like school!

Broken Sky blew me away:  immediate action, fast-paced plot, and characters I could relate to.  It felt so much like watching anime, I forgot I was reading a book!  For the first time, a book entertained rather than lectured, and I really appreciated that.  I wanted to be immersed in another world, and that’s exactly what happened.

Book Two of the series was the first book I ever bought with my own money.  In just a few weeks, I plowed through seven available books and found myself waiting impatiently for the release of books eight and nine.

After that, I was officially bitten by the reading bug and began devouring all of the popular children’s and teen books of the time: His Dark Materials, The Wind on Fire, Harry Potter, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, Artemis Fowl.  You name it, and if I hadn’t read it, I was about to.

It only takes that one book to show reluctant readers the light.  My lifelong love of books began with that initial experience.

TSR:  So what advice do you have for the parents and teachers of reluctant readers?  What can WE do to light their fire for literacy?

JE:  My advice, from the perspective of a once reluctant boy, is to encourage them to read non-literary, non-classic books.  While working in the bookstore, I constantly see parents telling their kids off for picking up the latest Beast Quest, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, or Minecraft book because they consider them to be trash. This is the single most effective way of killing a child’s interest in reading.  Just yesterday, in Waterstones, a young girl picked up the biography of Markus Persson, the inventor of Minecraft, and was thoroughly interested in it until her mother ripped it out of her hands and, much to the girl’s dismay, dragged her to our children’s classics table.  This parental
hatred of “trash” destroys a passion for reading in many boys and girls. 

Fortunately, my mum didn’t have that prejudice against manga or anime, so here I am today with my love of books.

Parents, if your son is riveted by Diary of a Wimpy Kid, please encourage him to read the entire series, illustrations and all.  And whatever you do, don’t take it out of his hands and replace it with a copy of The Railway Children or The Wind in the Willows. If your child wants to read the biography of Markus Persson, please let her!

TSR:  Although many boys eventually grow into avid readers, very few can lay claim to the title of published author as well.  But in 2011, Joseph Evans published his first book, a science fiction novel titled City of the Falling Sky, which was followed in 2013 with The Trinity Awakening, the second in what is now called The Seckry Sequence.  Both books were written by Joseph for kids like Joseph, boys who just need to find that one book that hooks ‘em!  Maybe they're just the bait you need to reel in a few resistant readers this year.

city_of_the_falling_sky_cover_medium.jpg   the_trinity_awakening_nook.jpg

City of the Falling Sky:

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Using Book Trailers in Your Language Arts Classroom

     Students LOVE to watch book trailers!  And when students LOVE something as much as they LOVE watching book trailers, a grinchy little section of this teacher's soul wonders:  Is watching them actually worthwhile?

After two years of using book trailers in my Language Arts classroom, not only can I assert, "Yes,  they're great!", I can also offer reasons why you should use them.

     I first began using book trailers after realizing that they serve, for books, the same purpose that previews serve for movies:  They whet the appetite for a story.  How many movies have you seen after viewing an intriguing preview?  Does it work the same way with students and books?

     It does.

     Each week before heading to the library, my classes watched one or two book trailers -- more when the book fair was on campus.  Invariably, this caused a stampede for the featured books, a race that was always won by the kids in my first period class.  For the sake of fairness, I began to have each interested student fill out a chit with his name, class period, and title of the desired book.  The chits then went  into a goldfish bowl for a drawing at the end of the day.

     The next day, the coveted book sits on the marker tray at the front of the room, waiting to be claimed by the lucky student whose name is written on the whiteboard.  Jealous groans are emitted in every class, further ramping up the desirability quotient of the featured text.  Fortunately, all students are required to maintain a "Books I Want to Read" list throughout the year.  It will remind them to look for that featured book during future library visits.  More than once, though, students got so tired of waiting for the book to be returned, they instead hounded their parents into taking a trip to the neighborhood bookstore!

     Book trailers can also be used to harvest new vocabulary!  [For more info on this topic, see Harvesting Vocabulary from Self-Selected Reading.] Since trailers aim to promote readership of a book, they often feature description from reviews written to promote the book as well.  Take, for example, this promotion for Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie by Jordan Sonnenblick:

By the end of the video, many students have added a great new title to their "Books I Want to Read" list.  A post-viewing discussion also leads to adding the adverb "totally" as well as six new adjectives to the "Words to Discuss Books" list kept in their writing journals: "hilarious," "touching," "remarkable," "inspiring," "believable," and "uplifting."  I'm sure you noticed, too, near the end of the video, that Sonnenblick offers some great advice about writing to which you can refer in future writing lessons.  Show the video again if necessary!

     After the class has learned characteristics of some literary genres, book trailers can offer on-going informal opportunities to infer genres of books based on the details provided.  Here's the trailer for a historical fiction novel titled Wheels of Change by Darlene Beck Jacobson:

     Pausing the trailer before it reveals the "historical fiction" genre, you would pose a series of questions:
  • So, into what literary genre would this book fall?
  • What are your clues?
  • Who is the main character of this book?
  • What does her conflict seem to be?
  • How do you think she will try to resolve the conflict?
  • Who saw two adjectives you could use to describe this book?
  • Did anybody see a noun you could use to replace the word "book"?
Do you see the academic vocabulary this discussion would reinforce -- not to mention the higher-level thinking involved in drawing conclusions and making predictions?  If any of the questions go unanswered when they are first asked, watch the video again with the purpose of finding those answers.

     The best part of interacting with book trailers is that the students think you're "just" talking about the video instead of delivering a substantive lesson!  It's kind of like slipping Fido's heart worm pill into a ball of hamburger meat:  Fido gets his treat.  You deliver what's needed.  Everyone goes home happy!

Next Up Boy vs. Books: The Joseph Evans Story

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Tweeting Your Way to Better Teaching

     Had it not been for the patient persistence of a dear friend/Twitter devotee, I probably would have missed out on what has become one of my most valuable teaching resources.  Today, I'd like to pay that forward.

     Be forewarned that your initial trek into Twitter may be utterly OVERWHELMING.  Think of the first time you stepped into the Main Street Confectionery at Disney's Magic Kingdom - (or, similarly, the M&Ms store in Las Vegas).  I was in fifth grade when that happened, and almost four decades later, I can still recall the colors, the variety, the mind-boggling muchness of the experience.

     Twitter is the digital equivalent.  As with those candy stores, my reaction was immediate, paralyzing greed.  I just didn't know where to start.  Once the drooling subsided, though, Step One became obvious:  Set up a Twitter profile.  And don't make the mistake I made!  Your address -- (the words after the @) -- should be your name or your organization, and not some whimsical locale from a treasured childhood story.  Had my Twitter fiend, er, friend not pointed that out, Ferdinand the Bull most likely would have been the sole follower of paulajmchale@underthecorktree.  You want to be easy to find.

Paula and Ferdinand, still waiting for her first retweet
     Once you have an address, it's time to start populating your digital community with people who can teach you the stuff you want to know.  As a sixth-grade Language Arts teacher, I immediately sought out and "followed" Donalyn Miller, author of The Book Whisperer, at @donalynbooks, as well as Teri Lesesne, undisputed goddess of YA literature, @ProfessorNana.  (Undisputed goddesses are allowed whimsical addresses as their ardent followers will track them to the very gates of Valhalla -- or Sam Houston State University.)  On the Twitter pages of these educational leaders, not only will you find links to their blog sites, you will notice that many of their "followers" are also people you've long admired professionally.  (They, in turn, most likely "follow" people you're about to admire professionally.)  Don't be shy.  "Following" any one of them is as easy as the click of a "+follow" button.

      Prepare to be stunned by the online presence of authors you've loved since forever who, in turn, tout the work of authors they respect and admire:  @JonathanMaberry, @sarahdessen@Cynthia_Lord -- to name a few.  You'll make valuable new contacts like @MrSchuReads, a wellspring of knowledge about great books for kids.  Thanks to their generously shared wisdom, I'll be starting the 2014-15 school year with a classroom library collection on par with that of my school.

    Just one month into summer break, the American Library Association @ALALibrary has already introduced me to three great websites to use with my students next year:  BiblioNasium, Socrative, and Tagxedo. @RWTnow has provided me with three fully researched lesson plans.  Possibly my most exciting online discovery began with the purchase of Kylene Beers' and Robert Probst's Notice & Note:  Strategies for Close Reading, a book I first learned about on Twitter (of course).

When I tweeted my thanks to Dr. Beers @KyleneBeers, she suggested I check out the Notice & Note Book Club on Facebook where I immediately found myself surrounded by teachers who love the book as much as I do, and who had already assembled an amazing collection of Google Docs and videos to support one's use of the ideas in N&N.  It would've taken me months of hard work to amass that wealth of knowledge on my own.

     With a handful of tweets, you can begin your own professional journey into a universe of people who share your obsession -- and are eager to learn and teach about it, too.  Just make sure you've got plenty of time.  You'll need it.

Don't miss The Sustained Reader's take on Using Book Trailers in Your Classroom

Saturday, June 14, 2014

After the Harvest: Growing Student Vocabulary

Author's note: Today's blog is a follow up to an earlier blog titled "Harvesting Vocabulary from Self-Selected Text."

    Vocabulary words are like newly planted seeds;  they must be tended.  If they sit, ignored, in student composition books, nothing will take root.

     Every now and then, some adventurous students will use new words without teacher prompting -- feed that impulse!  Early in my career, I noticed that a little girl had integrated a vocabulary word from our literature studies into a completely unrelated writing assignment.  Excited, I circled the word and wrote, "GREAT vocabulary choice!"

     While handing back papers in class the next day, I commented on how impressive it had been to see that word in Sandy's writing.  The comment was, of course, calculated to reinforce her efforts to experiment with new words -- and it did.  What I did not foresee was the effect my comment would have throughout the class.  Vocabulary words started springing up like wildflowers in student compositions!  As a novice teacher, I had not yet realized that learning isn't always the result of a scrupulously crafted presentation;  sometimes, it springs from one. casual. comment.  (Scary -- and thrilling!)

     Obviously, not all student writers are as daring as Sandy was; some require a little more nurturing.  Today, I want to show you how sentence models can help students start using words they've stored in a Vocabulary Harvest chart:

Initially, our "Words to Discuss Books" were gathered for use in book recommendations sent via Destiny Quest, a digital library catalog which allows students to communicate with each other online.  In other words, in this one assignment, students would be 1) using technology to 2) promote reading 3) to an authentic audience 4) by using newly acquired vocabulary to 5) craft well-structured sentences with correct 6) capitalization and 7) punctuation.  What a deal!  And, thanks to our on-going written communication about books, those skills were practiced and reinforced throughout the entire school year.

     The beginning sentence models we followed always included these four units of information:   book title, an adjective describing the book, genre/word to replace "book," and author's name.  For example: 
  • Dead End in Norvelt is a hilarious tale by Jack Gantos.
  • Warriors is an action-packed fantasy by Erin Hunter.
I am always grateful to my adventurous writers who forge ahead and experiment with embellishments beyond the original model.  Because they are risk-takers, those students typically raise their hands during sharing, too, thereby showing their classmates some new ideas for improving their writing.
  • Dead End in Norvelt is a darkly hilarious tale by award-winning author Jack Gantos.
  • Warriors is an action-packed fantasy series by best-selling author Erin Hunter.
Be sure to have the "daredevils" read their sentences aloud more than once, and point out to the other students the types of additional details that were used:  adverbs, additional info about the book and/or the author.  Sometimes, student creativity is inhibited by the desire always to be "good" and follow all the rules, so it's helpful to let students know it's okay to take risks in their writing.  When "clunkers" result from such experimentation, praise the students for their effort and thank them for providing another learning opportunity for the class.

     Here are some other sentences that result from models in which the same four units of information --  book titlean adjective describing the bookgenre/word to replace "book," and author's name  -- are used in a different order.   By mixing up the pattern of information, students are able to learn and practice using different types of punctuation.
  • Dead End in Norvelt, by Jack Gantos, is a darkly hilarious tale.
  • Jack Gantos' Dead End in Norvelt is a hilarious, action-packed novel.
     These sentences based on models serve very nicely as "beginner" book recommendations, but they're just the starting point in your students' development as budding writers. 

   Next up?  Things get digital in Tweeting Your Way to Better Teaching



Thursday, June 12, 2014

Harvesting Vocabulary from Self-Selected Reading

     Extensive reading expands a student's vocabulary.  That's a given.  But while some kids effortlessly soak up new words as they read, others seem to acquire very few without systematic instruction.  How, then, can a teacher address vocabulary with everyone reading a different book?  Is systematic instruction even possible?

The Harvesters by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

     Those questions alone might account for teachers' reluctance to attempt a curriculum based on self-selected materials.  It worried me, too.  But I have an idea for you today, a routine called the "Vocabulary Harvest," that I use successfully with students grades six through eight. 

     Step one in preparing for the Vocabulary Harvest is having students create a repository for the words they glean.  We title several pages of our composition books "Words to Discuss Books" and on the first of those pages, wrote brief definitions for three parts of speech:  adverbs, adjectives, and nouns.  It's also helpful to include this reminder:  "The three most common noun signals are a, an, and the."  

     The remaining space designated for "Words to Discuss Books" will eventually be filled with three-column charts like this one:

     Step two:  Teach your students how to find reviews on the book jacket and in the first few pages of their Silent Sustained Reading books.  (The reviews will be in quotation marks, and the source for each quote will be listed immediately after.  I initially made the mistake of assuming my students would just recognize the reviews and ended up with kids trying to work from summaries, synopses, author biographies, and all manner of unrelated silliness.)

     Step three:  As a class, look at the back of a book jacket like this one from Wonder by R.J. Palacio:

     Ask your students how many reviews they see -- "Three!" -- and then examine each quote for nouns to replace the word "book."  This year, I actually used our first Vocabulary Harvest to review (and in many cases, teach) "What is a noun?"  That discussion flowed beautifully into a mini-lesson about the importance of varied word choice in writing, and the value of using more specific nouns like "debut" and "page turner" in lieu of the word "book."

     After identifying all the adjectives and adverbs in the reviews, your students' final charts should look something like this:

     As an immediate extension activity, have everyone pull out a thesaurus to find synonyms for each adjective:

     Or, you can have the class use newly gleaned words to practice inferring a word's definition from its parts.  "Unexpected," "memorable," "life-affirming," and "page-turner" all lend themselves nicely to that conversation.  Because that skill has always been easy for me, I sometimes forget that quite a few students require direct and repeated practice.  For example, the word "fast-paced" completely stumped many of my students until I asked "Well, do you know what the word "fast" means?  Okay, so what would it mean when you're talking about the 'pace' of the action in a story?"  Then, I stare at them until a little light bulb appears. 


     (I typically see a few sheepish smiles at the end of that exchange.)

     After a few class-wide "harvests," many of your students will be ready to undertake the process independently each time they begin reading a new book.  It's always good, though, to repeat the process periodically with the entire class.  Over time, it becomes routine for everyone.

     Important:  Once your students have begun their collection of "Words to Describe Books," it's important that they use their freshly gleaned words as soon as possible.  See how in "After the Harvest: Growing the Student Vocabulary."

Thinking Outside of the Box(es)

     When I was a little girl, I thought that everyone's stomach had compartments for all the different foods.  Upon consumption, the green beans would fall into the green bean compartment while the meatloaf and mashed potatoes fell into their separate receptacles.  Admittedly, I was a weird kid, but you can't deny that cafeteria trays may have contributed to the misunderstanding.

     As a teacher, I've noticed that students -- and not just the weird ones -- tend to think this way about the different academic disciplines, most likely because the subjects are taught in separate classrooms by different teachers.  Once, back in the 80s, my 7th grade Honors English class freaked out the week I asked them to create charts and graphs illustrating different environmental concerns.  Although the assignment tied directly into our study of The Martian Chronicles, the students rebelled: "THAT'S SCIENCE STUFF!"  A similar uprising occurred years later when I assigned a class to draw floor plans of the house in Whispers from the Dead. "WHAT?  THAT'S NOT --"  English stuff.  I know.  

     Presumably to erode such boundaries in thinking, school districts switched from content area departments to interdisciplinary teams. Comprised of one teacher per core academic discipline, teams were given an additional planning period to create cross-curricular explorations of such questions as "What is 'social justice'?"  It was a great idea -- except that it never happened.  Not in my school, anyway. In no time at all, administrators expected academic team teachers to use that time for handling behavioral concerns.
     So here we are in the new millennium, still serving up content in discrete helpings, just like the cafeteria food.  Compartmentalized thinking continues to thrive and not just between the academic disciplines.  I'm starting to see it happen within my Language Arts classes, so much so that I've begun to address the issue directly:

"Remember, students, I am NOT teaching you this one passage.  We're reading this passage to practice finding the main idea of any nonfiction text. Apply this skill in Science and Social Studies, too, okay?"

     Imagine my relief today while reading "Chapter 5:  Generalized Language" from Notice & Note: Strategies for Close Reading:  

"Most important, plan the generalizable language in your explanation [of a characters' behavior that contrasts with the kind of behavior one would expect].  You want students to be alert to contrasts [in everything they read], not simply to learn about [the specific character named] Luke."

    So I'm not just imagining things!  (Always good to know.) Apparently, Drs. Beers and Probst have also noted students' tendency to pigeonhole skills and information.  Even better, they've provided some tools to help our students spread out their thinking.  If you haven't yet read these great new ideas for working with student readers, I suggest you look into it.  While I'm at it, maybe I'll see who's up for a little interdisciplinary planning!

The up-coming blog is my readers' all time favorite:  Harvesting Vocabulary From Self-Selected Reading

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Lexile Score? What's THAT?

    Two questions parents ask me every year:

    What is a Lexile score?  What do we do with it?

    Answering those questions is pretty dry stuff, but -- like gluten -- it's important, for now.  (Also, like our preoccupation with gluten, our interest in students' Lexile scores may well be gone in the next five years, replaced by the latest fanfloozle.)

     Okay, deep breath.  What is a Lexile score?

     The words "Lexile score," or Lexile measure, can apply either to a reader or to a piece of text.  The score is typically shown as a number with an "L" after it, so 850L = 850 Lexile.  A student's Lexile measure results from a reading test or program;  a higher Lexile score represents a higher level of reading ability.   (A score of 1800 is reeeeeeeally up there.)

     With text, Lexile measure refers to the level of difficulty a student might experience in reading that text. So, students with an 850 Lexile measurement should stick to reading books at an 850 Lexile level, right?  Um, no. 

     Even though each student has an assigned Lexile number, it is preferable that they think in terms of a Lexile range when choosing books. suggests a range from 100 points below one's Lexile number to 50 points above the number.  Consequently, if one's Lexile number is 880, then the Lexile range would be 780 to 930.

     Still with me?  Good.  

So should I restrict my child to reading only materials in his Lexile range?

     If you want your child to improve as a reader, here's the key:  Students who read the most, read the best It really is that simple.  It is not a matter of reading the "right" sorts of books, nor is it mandatory for students to read consistently at a certain level of difficulty.  (See The Mystery of the Maligned Manuscript.)  Actually, rigid restrictions about reading levels, genres, etc,  often inhibit students' enjoyment of reading, causing them to read less.  It's counterproductive. 

     Better to regard a student's Lexile range as a guideline rather than a rule in choosing reading materials.  While it frustrates students to read text far above their Lexile range, it's unproductive for them to read far below their capability.  Also, while a child may be able to read literature far above his grade level, such materials often contain content or themes inappropriate for his social, emotional, and/or psychological stages of development.  Because of all these variables, teachers are starting to realize the importance of granting students more autonomy -- within reason, of course -- in choosing their own reading materials.

     After years of working with student readers and their data, I've observed that students who read a lot of books -- even books as far as 200 points below their Lexile range -- tend to improve their Lexile measures the most over the course of the school year.  This obviously supports the notion that reading improvement is more about the quantity of reading than anything else.  Students who improve the least?  That's a tie between the students who don't read at all and the students whose parents force them to read "classics" that are waaaaaaay too high level for them.  

Why did schools switch from "grade level" to Lexile measure, anyway?

     As has always been the case, students in any given grade are reading at many different levels.  It just doesn't make sense to think of reading levels in terms of grade levels.

So why determine reading levels at all?

     No matter what a student's reading level is at the beginning of the school year, it's important to see whether that level continues to improve.  If no gains are made over the course of a school year, it's time to diagnose and correct whatever may be standing in the way of  improvement.  Looking at Lexile scores for growth is the most valuable use of the data.

     According to the Lexile website, students are expected to achieve a gain of 75 to 100 points over the course of a school year.  It is natural, however, for students to hit an occasional plateau or to experience a growth spurt during the year.  Students coping with reading issues such as dyslexia will most likely improve at a slower pace.

To tell or not to tell?

     I have never found any value in keeping students' Lexile measurements a secret from them.  Because it is unfixed, a student's Lexile range can be improved over time with effort.  (It can also change for the worse over time through lack of effort.)  Simply put, an advanced Lexile measurement is evidence that a student's behaviors + native ability = a desirable outcome.  If a student's reading level is unsatisfactory, then it's time to put in the additional effort required in order to achieve a more desirable outcome.  There's nothing magical about it. 

Ready to think outside the box?  Thinking Outside of the Boxes

Friday, June 6, 2014

Where Have You Been All My Life, Tagxedo?

     How did I make it to June 2014 without once hearing about Tagxedo?  (No, I do not teach in a cave.) Learning to navigate this fabulous, FREE app takes about five minutes, thereby leaving you endless hours for experimentation.

     As with Wordle, a similar app for designing "word clouds," the size of the words in a Tagxedo shape is determined by the number of times you repeat it.  If, for design purposes, you want "Wonder" to be the most prominent word in your shape, then type it four times more than any other words you use.

     Idea:  If I copy and paste one of my blogs into Tagxedo, will I discover I've been overusing any words?  Randomly selecting The Evolution of Wonder in Room A110, I copy and paste in the text, make my design choices, and hit "save."  Whew!  "Very" is not the largest word in my Tagxedo'd heart, but for a lot of beginning writers, I bet it might be.  Wouldn't that be a fun activity for helping younger students discover their "overworked words"?  Plus, learning to copy and paste text is of huge benefit to novice keyboarders.

     Tagxedo could also be used to analyze nonfiction text.  Determining a passage's main idea is a difficult skill made easier when students first identify the topic. Wait a minute!  By and large, the topic of a passage is repeated more frequently than any other word(s).  So if you copy and paste a nonfiction passage into Tagxedo, one or two of the larger words will probably be the topic, right?  Let's give it a try.

     Here's the Tagxedo result after cutting and pasting in a passage about Helen Keller from

     I like it, don't you?  The apple shape, one of many choices offered in Tagxedo's shape menu, suggests the student/teacher relationship of Helen and Anne Sullivan.  The larger words inside the shape -- hand, blind, water, deaf, word, letters -- bring to mind the pivotal moment in Helen's life when she first connected the hand-spelled letters for "w-a-t-e-r" with the sensation of water rushing over her hand.  (Remember:  I didn't choose the words to enlarge - Tagxedo did.)

    Many middle school students struggle to analyze informational text on any topic.  It would be interesting to have them examine a teacher-designed shape before reading the passage.  The class could make predictions about the text based on the larger-sized words.

     Or, after reading a short nonfiction passage online, students could cut and paste it into Tagxedo.  The larger words appearing in the shape could help them determine the main idea.

     Answers to any questions you may have about Tagxedo are readily found in countless YouTube videos.  You can even learn how to input shapes other than the ones on the menu.  Take a look at this one!

     Are you starting to visualize the possibilities for your academic area?  I'll even spot you an ice-breaker for the students' first week back to school:  
  • Type "Summer" ten times into Tagxedo 
  • Choose ten fun activities you did (e.g. reading) and type them in, three times each 
  • Choose ten things you enjoyed the most (e.g. movies) and type each thing two times 
  • Make your design choices, hit "save" -- and voila!  

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Now go enjoy your summer!

(And for your summer reading enjoyment:  Lexile Score? What's That?