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?

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Best Book List EVER!

     At the end of each school year, a handful of students -- prompted by their parents, most likely -- will ask me for a summer reading list.  The good news?  They intend to read over the summer!  The bad news?  They've made it through the entire school year without acquiring a crucial academic skill:  How to Choose a Book You Will Enjoy!

     Don't get me wrong.  Certain types of book lists -- The Nerdy Book Club's Top Ten lists, for example -- can provide great starting points in a kid's hunt for a satisfying read.  Last year, a rough-and-tumble sixth-grade boy was surprised to find his reading niche in The Nerdy Book Club's Top Ten Crying Books.  Go figure.

     In general, though, I find it more effective to teach my students various strategies for finding books suited to their unique skill set and interests.  Here's a video for introducing them to the process:  How to Choose a Great Book!

     And that's just for starters!  Eventually, you'll want to impart valuable nuggets such as these:  "Multiple copies of a library book mean it's really popular!  So many kids requested it that the librarian ordered extra copies." * and "Always look inside the book.  It's okay if you still want to read books with pictures and large typeface."  The Diary of a Wimpy Kid books, Jeff Kinney's stroke of genius, fly off the shelves in middle school libraries, straight into the hands of readers who just aren't ready for small text.   (Noticing there was a fortune to be made with the "big text, little pictures" format, other authors began to emulate it:  the Middle School , Dork Diaries, and Big Nate series -- to name just a few.)

     It's equally important for students to maintain a "Books I Want to Read" book list throughout the year.  Make sure everyone sets up that page right away in his composition book.  Before, during, and after viewing a book trailer or holding a "Book Buzz" session, remind the class to write down titles of any books they find appealing.  Prior to Library Day, have the kids look over their "Books I Want to Read" lists and make note of any book(s) they want to snag.  

     As the year progresses, teachers lucky enough to have Destiny Quest in their school library can show students how to keep a digital "Want to Read" list.  BiblioNasium, a similar online app, offers that same capability free of charge for home-schooled students as well as kids in private schools.

BiblioNasium "Shelves"

    After nine months of viewing book trailers, browsing library shelves, and discussing books with peers, each student's "Books I Want to Read" list then becomes their best summer reading list ever, one they custom-designed for themselves.

* Basic Teaching Precept #2:  No matter how obvious something seems to you,
                                               at least one student won't "get it" without direct