About Me

After 23 years as a high school social studies teacher, I have taken a leap into library media.
This blog chronicles my experiences making this transition and my learning in that process.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Overcoming Impediments to Student Close Reading

I was talking with a colleague whose students are engaged in a lengthy research project inspired by Jared Diamond's Collapse. Inspired by this mentor text, students research, create infographics, present to their peers and write about the health and future prospects of our civilization. The problem my colleague was lamenting was that students were, at best, skimming the mentor text. At worst, they were randomly choosing excerpts to share before jumping ahead to the creation portions of the project. Needless to say, without a close reading of Diamond, the final presentations will be superficial and generic. So, my colleague's question was two-fold: 1) why aren't they reading? 2) how can I get them to read?

Here are my recommendations on students and close reading.

For this project in particular I suggested a re-structuring of the student groupings and tasks. As the project is designed now, students work in pairs with each pair presenting the reading about one of twelve different societies. Instead, I suggested, focus only on six civilizations and have four students assigned to a society with two of them responsible for presenting the reading about that society to the class and the other two responsible for critiquing the presentation based on their reading of the same text. They can do this in a fishbowl so the rest of the class is learning the content and how to be critical friends.

Furthermore, I surmised that one reason students weren't reading was because they were given, all at once, the entire scope of the exercise from the initial reading assignment to the final stage that was still weeks away. Students were jumping to the product and skipping the process because they needed more scaffolding. I suggested putting them in groups and giving them the reading assignment as a discrete exercise. Keep their focus in the moment.

Even if the assignment was scaffolded, Diamond's texts have a lexile measure of about 1400. Students need specific support to unpack the text. To that end, I had other suggestions:

Students could keep a dialectical (double-entry) notebook while reading. There are lots of models of these notebooks. Some are basic and have one column designated for student summary of an aspect of the text and the other for student questions based on those summaries. Others give different column headings like "Point of View" or "Comparison" which prompt students to think critically and analytically about what they are reading.

In non-fiction lit circles, students are assigned a focus while reading. They then meet in small groups to share the conclusions they reached given their individual focus and discuss the importance of the reading evidence and insights. Reading roles can be adapted to different texts and types of media. Here are some suggested ones:

  • Questioner: what would you ask the people in the passage if you could? Why?
  • Connector: of what are you reminded when you read this passage? (book, movie, tv, current event…) Why?
  • Wonderer: what do you want to know about this situation? Why?
  • Predictor: what do you think the outcome of the conflict will be? Explain.
  • Passage Picker: select the passage you think is key to understanding the text. Explain its importance.
Partner annotations is one of my favorite tools when a text can be shared digitally. For example, in a Google Doc, two students can share a text and annotate it by inserting comments. When a student highlights a portion of the text s/he thinks is important s/he can add a comment about why it is important, questions it raises, connections to other issues, etc. Paired students can respond to each other's annotations thereby carrying on a dialogue about the text in the margins.

Some of these strategies can be combined to further enhance student close reading. Consider asking students to keep a dialectical notebook using the reading roles as column headings and then bring that notebook to share in a lit circle discussion!

Happy reading!

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Teaching students to understand bias

Students frequently ask: can you help me find a source that's not biased? When they ask that question we know what they mean, what it shows us the students need to learn is that 1) there are degrees of bias and 2) everyone has bias, so 3) there is no such thing as unbiased. Instead, we need to teach students to recognize what a text creator's bias is and how or whether that bias negates the usefulness of that source for the student's purpose.

Today we worked with a class of grade 11 students doing research for an in-depth research paper. The focus of the class unit is on the relationship between socioeconomic status and educational experience so this topic will frame the research questions the students are seeking to answer. To facilitate the students' resource selection and understanding of the impact of bias on source credibility we worked with the class unpacking an editorial from the "Room for Debate" section of the New York Times in response to the question: "Is School Reform Hopeless?"

We scaffolded this exercise to help students begin to understand their own biases on this topic and how their bias will influence how they understand what they read and how they convey what they ultimately write. We selected one of the editorials and provided the students just the conclusion to that text. We selectively removed words from the paragraph and asked students to replace the blanks with whatever word they each thought would best convey the meaning of the paragraph. When they completed this exercise individually, we asked them to work with 2 or 3 other students in the class to compile their words on one document and compare how they each completed the paragraph and how their choice of words changed the meaning of the paragraph. The pictures below are of the excerpted paragraph with the students' words on post-it notes.


Here is an example of a phrase with blanks to be filled:

...too many are climbing stairwells with broken handrails and missing steps, tripping and falling as they ________ to keep up, while others are _________ up on elevators...

In one group students said:

  • struggling to keep up, while others racing up
  • trying to keep up, while others rising up
  • attempting to keep up, while others moving up

The students were able to see that racing implies competition, rising implies progress and maybe increase in status, while moving is more passive. They were surprised that none of those were the words that the author used but they couldn't think of another word to use.

The actual sentence is: "...too many are climbing stairwells with broken handrails and missing steps, tripping and falling as they work to keep up, while others are zooming up on elevators..."

Certainly working implies a conscious sense of purpose and purposefulness to the effort that is not reflected in struggle, try or attempt. Work may also imply a degree of success and ability absent in those other terms. Zooming also has a very different connotation than the words the students chose, particularly in contrast to working. So, we asked students to compare their bias with that of the author and consider how differing opinions might influence their assessment of the source's credibility.

For the next phase of this exercise, we provided the students with the rest of the editorial where we had highlighted words or phrases and added questions to invite students to discuss the writer's choice of word and how those words affected the meaning of her editorial.

Here is an example paragraph:
"In addition to attending to these basic survival needs, schools have to attract experienced teachers and leaders with the right sensibilities and training to educate youth from diverse social and cultural backgrounds. Successful school districts also enhance youth development through extracurricular activities and additional enrichment. When families cannot afford costly after-school programs, personal tutors and experiential summer vacations, effective school-communities invest in programs to offset these opportunity gaps." 

Here are the questions we posed corresponding to each of the highlighted phrases:

  1. What does this phrase imply? (basic survival needs)
  2. What do you think these are? (right sensibilities)
  3. How is this different than education? (youth development)
  4. What other gaps have you heard of? (opportunity gaps)

As they shared their conclusions and questions the students raised questions like: what does equity mean? One student said it meant equality. At that point, we directed the class to the Allsides Dictionary. Here is how Allsides describes their dictionary:


Click to see how Allsides defines equity and the cartoon they use to distinguish "equity" from "equality". We think this resource is incredibly valuable to students as they learn to navigate the information they encounter and develop information literacy -- particularly in the face of fake news!



Carter, Prudence L. “Poor Schools Need to Encompass More Than Instruction to Succeed.” The Opinion Pages: Room for Debate, New York Times, 14 Sept. 2016, www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2016/09/14/is-school-reform-hopeless/poor-schools-need-to-encompass-more-than-instruction-to-succeed.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Do you have the time?

Image Credit: NasimAhmed96$, CC BY-SA 4.0
commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44772050
Time. A highly valuable human intangible. We cherish good times, lament bad times, wish for more time. Lately I've been pondering the allocation of time during the school day.

Yesterday we had teams visit us from a couple of other local districts. One of the side conversations at the beginning of the open house was about schedules. The concept of a block schedule was tossed about in comparison to a rotating, eight-period day. The participants in the conversation seemed to agree that the block was the preferred schedule and discussed the two models as though those were the only allocations of time.

As I eavesdropped on that conversation it reminded me of an initiative being undertaken in my previous district: a review and possible revision of the daily schedule. Now in my 24th year as an educator I need both of my hands to count the number of times I have participated in a committee that was charged with reviewing and proposing revisions to the daily schedule. Each committee worked in the same way: what are other similar schools doing? what are the costs/benefits of those types of schedules in our school? How can we tweak our schedule a little to make apparent improvements without really upsetting the apple cart. Ultimately, changing very little in terms of the quality of teaching and learning vis-à-vis the allocation of time.

Time is a resource like computers, classrooms, athletic equipment, staff members, etc. While it may be intangible, it still should be considered in the same way other resources are considered: what are our educational priorities and how do we allocate our resources to maximize fulfilling those priorities? It was the focus on that question that set the current initiative in my previous district apart from any other schedule revision I had experienced. The process began with the faculty discussing and determining what their educational priorities were. These priorities were then separated into categories: which were non-negotiable and which were secondary drivers?

Consider this list of priorities:

  • one-on-one meeting time with students
  • minimizing interruptions to instructional time for "special events"
  • PLC or other meetings of faculty instructional teams
  • genius hour, passion projects, etc.
  • advisory program
  • flexible instructional minutes
  • maximizing the number of courses a student can take
  • study halls, extra help OR maximizing course enrollment and minimizing study halls
  • capping class size

How might time be sliced, diced, and served if these are the criteria that determine the best schedule? What secondary benefits does this allocation of time create? What costs are associated with this schedule? Ultimately, does satisfying the non-negotiables make paying the costs a worthwhile trade-off? If not, were you honest about your priorities?

How is the schedule that emerges different if these are the priorities:

  • all classes meet everyday
  • changing district test scores
  • aligning with assessments for AP, IB or other standardized curricula
  • ease of moving students from one section of a course to another
  • ease of accommodating students new to the district into the course offerings

Return to the same reflection questions: how must time be divided to satisfy these requirements? what other benefits will the school realize because of this allocation of time? What costs are associated with this schedule? Ultimately, does satisfying the non-negotiables make paying the costs a worthwhile trade-off? If not, were you honest about your priorities?

Just a little food for thought to start the new year!