achievement, Be the change, students choice, students teach me

Helping Students Set Better Reading Goals

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An often asked question I receive is, “How do you help kids set a reading goal?” And while the answer really could be an entire book, I promised the Passionate Readers Facebook group that I would write a little bit about my process here. After all, perhaps something I am doing as I try to figure this out myself can help someone else, or perhaps, and this is often the case, somebody else has great ideas that they can share in the comments.

In the past, I used to set the reading goals for all of my students, after all, as the adult in the room I thought it was part of my job to set attainable goals for all students in order for them to read more, comprehend more, be more. And yet, whenever I sat with a student and we discussed these goals that I had pre-determined based on what I saw as their needs, unsurprisingly there wasn’t always full buy-in. Sure, some kids were onboard and appreciated the goals, some even took them to heart and really worked on them, but some also (sometimes many) forgot everything about the goal the minute our conversation ended. This then began a chain of reminders, notes, and post-its for their notebooks as I tried to somehow get them all to not just remember their goals but actually invest in them. Perhaps you have been in this situation as well?

It took me a few years to realize that part of the reason these goals failed was that they had little student input. The goals were, mostly, determined by me, and while many of them were sound and based on best practice within reading instruction, they offered students little chance for ownership or engagement with the goal. This meant there was no skin in the game for our students and the goals were easy to dismiss. There was also a distinct lack of conversation surrounding the goal, sure, we conferred, but it often followed a “script” in a way and didn’t allow for a lot of natural conversation to occur. While I liked having a format as a newer teacher, it stopped me at times from really listening and reacting to what they were saying.

Realizing these two things was a huge step and yet it still didn’t solve my problem; how do we create goals that students may actually want to invest in? Well for me the answer was student reading identity. Not the goal itself, but instead students (re)discovering who they are as a reader because without any kind of realization of this, they won’t do well setting goals.

Knowing this, we start every year with a survey, a reflection, and a discussion of who they are as a reader. The survey changes every year, as it should, but it still creates the foundation of our very first discussion the first time we meet. It allows me a small peek into how they view themselves as readers as we get to know each other. And so the very first goal is typically many-pronged. Many of our students need to increase their reading and so for many that is part of their goal, and yet, that in itself is not a great goal for many. There are many of our students who should be reading more but they have habits that need to be changed first before they can even accomplish that goal. Our conversation may then center around the following items:

Desire – to increase reading stamina, success, and better relationship with books.

Barriers – Doesn’t know how to select a great book, doesn’t take books home, doesn’t have “book people,” and doesn’t actually read outside of class, in fact, some days doesn’t even read in class.

Old goal: I would have asked the student to increase their reading outside of school without realizing which and how many barriers they may be facing.

Potential new goal: Figure out which books they like to read. OR add more titles to their to-be-read list. OR…. (this is where the conversation comes into play – what makes sense for them in order to challenge themselves as readers?)

Questions I (may) use when discussing whether a goal make sense:

  • Is this a goal that will actually work for you?
  • How will this goal challenge you?
  • What barriers are in place for you to reach this goal?
  • Which habits do you need to change in order to reach this goal?
  • What is your next step toward this goal?
  • How can I support you in reaching this goal/What would you like me to do?

The thing is, we need to give students more opportunities to discuss what they know about themselves as learners. And when some students inevitably tell us that they don’t know who they are as readers then that is where we start our conversations. We become detectives trying to help them recognize and then further their own reading identity, this then leads to them discussing and then choosing potential goals, even if for some it is a reluctant goal. The one they set for themselves is recorded and then discussed whenever we meet. This goal may be a goal that some of our students work on all year and while this may seem disheartening, I don’t think it is, in a way it makes sense; after all students sometimes have well-established habits that can take years of great experiences to undo – don’t we all?

What I have learned in goal-setting with students is simple yet has once again transformed how I treat our year together. Conversation and uncovering/rediscovering their reading identity and then basing everything on that is what will fuel our goal setting. The students have taught me that everyone needs a unique goal. That the best goals start with reflection, conversation, and then are set. That goals only mean something if students are part of the conversation. That goals can change. That we should not set the goal for them if we can help it because this transfers the ownership. (Note: I have goals I set for kids privately but that is to inform my teaching and not part of our conversation.) That goals need to mean something.

So as I sit with kids every day discussing what they are working on as readers, I am always amazed at the conversations we have. On how they reflect on themselves and what they need to do. On how more are realizing why this goal setting is actually worth their time. On how proud they are for reaching goals that matter to them. And while I am proud of all of our readers, I cannot help but smile the widest when a child discovers just how much they have grown. Not because a test told them so but because they realized it by thinking about themselves and their progress. Isn’t that how it always should be?

If you like what you read here, consider reading my book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child.  This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block.  If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

achievement, advice, assumptions, authentic learning, Be the change, being a student, being a teacher, reflection, Student-centered, students

Some Ideas for Re-Engaging Students

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For the past few days student engagement has been at the forefront of my mind.  Well, who am I kidding, it is always on my mind.  As I gave a workshop on student engagement, I was asked for quick tips on how to re-engage in class.  While these aren’t just simple ideas, I hope they can help you work through engagement lulls in your own classroom.

You can have an honest conversation with students.  If the same class is off-task or the same group, please pull the whole class or group together to discuss.  Do not judge, simply ask what is going on and then ask them to help you solve it.  Often students will blame being bored so then ask them how they can make it more exciting.  Part of creating classrooms where students are engaged is that students are expected to take control of their learning journey meaning you should not be trying to solve everything.

You can change it up.  Too often we fall in love with a routine like the workshop model and then forget that too much predictability can be a bore.  While I am not advocating for a zany show, I think it is important to be tuned into whether the routine is working at its optimal level or not, then tweak and change as needed.

You can turn on some music.  I have found that using music that has the opposite tempo of my students’ mood is great for refocusing them.  So if they are slow and lethargic, I play upbeat music while they work, if they are very energetic, I bring out the mellow tunes.

You can practice mindfulness.  I started using some short breathing or yoga videos after assemblies with my students because there was no way they would settle in on their own.  Once my 7th graders get past their giggles, they also benefit from 3 minutes of focused breathing.

You can stop a train-wreck.  When a lesson was going poorly, I used to ride it out to the end hoping that by then they would get it.  Now I know to stop, ask why they are not understanding, and then fix.  I also have the luxury of completely revamping it throughout the day since I teach the same class five times in a row (one of the only positive things about that).

You can move location or just move.  Sometimes my students have simply been sitting too long.  Past elementary level we sometimes do not realize how much time students spend sitting since we only see our slice of the day.  A natural restlessness is therefore bound to occur.  So we move around in the classroom either by sharing with peers, doing short book recommendations, or showing off our work, or we pick up and move altogether.  We can head to the library, outside, or into our team area.

You can affirm and replace.  This is a technique I adapted from the awesome book Awakened by Angela Watson.  When my students seems bogged down as a class, we spend a few minutes speaking about what is going on and then I try to help them replace those thoughts by shifting the focus to something else. It is important for students to feel validated in their thinking but then also for them to move beyond it.

You can find a different way for them to show off their knowledge.  We use turn-and-talk quite a bit, but I also ask students to act answers out, draw things out without speaking and any other way that will get different areas of their brains to light up.  This is not something I do the entire class period, but it is vital that we have students show knowledge in a variety of ways, rather than just one way.

You can make it personal.  Yes, personalized learning is a major buzzword right now, but I am talking about the personal connections that students can have to the learning and how we can tap into that.  A lot of disengagement comes from students being bored with the content, so we do need to re-evaluate the content we are focusing on, as well as what the students are doing with it.  Students may want to engage with the content in different ways but we won’t know that without knowing our students.

You can use technology.  We integrate technology throughout the year but sometimes introducing a new tool like Kahoot does fire students up in a new way.  However, with any new ideas, moderation is key because this does not address the problem in the long-term but simply changes the pace at that moment.

In the end, student engagement is just about the quick fixes we can make, but about the instrumental changes we need to have in our teaching philosophy.  It is too easy to just blame the students, although they do carry responsibility in all of this, so we must reevaluate whether what we are doing in our classrooms is truly worth being engaged in.  The bottom line is; we have to believe in what we are doing and show that passion every single day, because if we don’t, we have no right asking students to.

PS:  This is part of a three part series on student engagement.  The first post discussed the truths my students shared with me on why they are disengaged, the second post discussed the three areas we must re-evaluate.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  The 2nd edition and actual book-book (not just e-book!) comes out September 22nd from Routledge, but rumor has it that it is out on Kindle already!

achievement, students

Just Practice It Again and Again and Again

“You’re going to practice it again and again and again and again. . . so there’s a chance you can finally do that level of work.”

Words taken directly from the video “From the Page to the Classroom: Implementing the Common Core State Standards – English Language Arts and Literacy” Words that chill me to my bones.  If you ever want a child to tune out of their education, you ask them to practice the same skill again and again in the same way.  Not reading a lot, but reading one book over and over until it is mastered.  Doing the same math problem over and over.  We know that it is not just repetition that fosters understanding, but relevance, interest, and engagement as well.  Students stay engaged when they are faced with problems that they can successfully master or can access different ways of getting through them.  Students become successful when their curiosity is piqued.  How does repetition of the same thing pique anyone’s curiosity?

I was awful at math in gymnasium, and yet I had chosen it as my line of study.  I asked my teacher for help again and again, and over and over she showed me the same way to do the same problem, failing to understand that us being stuck in this track of help led us nowhere.  I needed a new approach, someone else to explain it to me and so do our students; if a book is not helping them, then we must search for something else.  If the approach that I take to explain something is not helpful then another way must be found.  

Now I now some people will say that repetition is how we learn anything, and yes, thoughtful repetition does help us learn.  Repetition in the type of problem we encounter, but not the actual problem itself.  So forcing a child to read the same text whether it is accesible to them or not hoping that they will catch up to their peers is ludicrous to begin with and then having them re-read it over and over in the hopes that it will all of a sudden click, well that is just insanity.

So when we now all rush to implement the common core, will we be the ones telling our students to just do it again and again and again?  Or will we be the ones that find a way to work with the standards, ensuring that our students’ curiosity for learning is protected?  And has anyone stopped to ask the students how they want to learn?  Or do their opinions not matter?

achievement, alfie kohn, assessment, being a teacher, No grades

Not Grading is Awful

I am just going to admit it; not grading sucks!  Not grading means I cannot assign an average, translate it into a grade and be done.  Not grading means I have to have anecdotal evidence to back up my final grade on the report card, anecdotal evidence I have to collect throughout the year and then actually keep in one place.  Not grading also means that my students have not been given percentages at any time throughout the year, which means that when I have to give them a letter grade (as mandated by my district) it is my job to make sure that they have an idea of why they are getting what they get.  Not grading means I cannot just zip through a pile of papers, correct them according to my answer key, and whip out my calculator.  Not grading means that a product can take weeks to truly be complete because that student has to rework it or revisit it in some way.  Not grading means I have to find the time in our super packed schedule to have discussions with kids about their progress.  And it sucks, honestly, because it is so much work.  I am not going to lie.  It is a lot of work not to grade in the traditional sense.

And yet, despite all of this, not grading in the traditional sense of percentages and letter grades makes so much sense to me.  Giving feedback rather than a letter leaves room to start a conversation.  It leaves room for the student’s voice to be part of the deliberation.  It leads to more learning situations as I cater my curriculum to fit the needs of that particular student.  It leads to much more time spent with the student rather than at home going through their piles.

For one, sitting down with my students to discuss why they have assigned themselves whatever grade is eye-opening.  To hear 5th graders take control of their learning, to own up to where they should have worked harder, to set up the future path for learning they need to travel, wow!  I even used my Livescribe pen for some of these conversations just to record what the students had to say, even though no one but me would listen to it.

Second, I am amazed at how often my students and I land on the same grade.  These kids really know where they are in their learning journey and they know why they are there.  It is rare that I have to steer them toward a different grade and even then it is something we discuss.

Finally, having these reflective discussions is a great way for me to culminate the year.  The students give me feedback on what worked for them, they give me ideas on how to improve and we discuss where they are headed.  All of them set learning goals for the summer, not through assigned homework, threats or promises from me but because they want to read or want to remember their math concepts.

And yet, I still struggle with taking that conversation and distilling it to a letter grade.  That letter seems so shallow compared to the rich discussion we have had.  That letter doesn’t seem to reflect all of the growth they have done.  That letter doesn’t seem to describe their journey at all but instead boils them back down to a percentage, to a number and a grade that says nothing.  So I return to my constant state of reflection on grading; what am I trying to accomplish with it?  What is the true purpose?  What am I trying to classify and portray?  How can I ever hope to capture the essence of a child’s growth in a mere letter?  And the time?  Where will I continue to find the time as our school gets more focused on tests and data?  I am not sure I have all of the answers but in my heart and mind I know what I am doing makes sense for me.  Even if it is one of the most time consuming changes I have ever integrated into my room.

achievement, being me, failure, rewards

No, You Didn’t Make It, Such Is Life – Should We Shield Students from Disappointment?

I still remember my reaction after I hung up the phone.  Shock, disbelief, and then uncontrollable tears and anger.  How dare he tell me I didn’t get the job?  How dare he tell me that I interviewed really well but someone else just beat me by a little bit? How dare he not give me what I deserved?  And then rational Pernille took over, I took a deep breath, and realized once again; such is life.  Disappointment, no matter how much we would rather live with it, is a constant in life.  We don’t always get what we want even though we worked so hard for it.  We don’t always get the job, the guy, the prize, whatever our heart and dedication has been set on.  We just don’t always win and that realization is part of being an adult.

This past week I had to deal with being the cause of disappointment at my school.  I, along with a fellow teacher, run the annual talent show where students audition to hopefully make it into the show.  Not all students make it because of time constraints and we are faced with tough decisions of who gets to be in the show.  This may seem a surprise for those who read this blog; that I would have anything to do with sorting children, and yet, here is my exception.  This show is not mandatory.  Students choose to audition well knowing that they may not make it.  They rehearse, they create and then they give it their best shot, and just like in adult life, sometimes that shot just isn’t good enough.  Sometimes the audition just goes poorly, sometimes they need more rehearsal, sometimes it comes down to logistics.  Whatever the cause for the cut, it is never easy to tell a child that they didn’t make it.  And yet, such is life.

So how do we deal with disappointment in our children and our students?  As a parent, I know how much I want Thea to succeed in whatever she puts her mind too but at the same time I know there will be disappointment.  I know there will be times when I cannot understand why she didn’t make it, why she didn’t get it, why she didn’t win, but at the same time I don’t want her to feel she always should.  I want her to realize that it doesn’t come down to life being unfair, but rather that we cannot get everything we put our minds and hearts to.  That it is okay to get upset but then you need to move on and do something constructive with your emotions.  That disappointment is inevitable and it is what we do afterwards and how we react to it that matters.

Some parents think the talent show should be stopped.  That it is not healthy for us to “do” this to children and I would agree with them if the students were forced to audition, but they are not.  In elementary school there is such a fear of disappointment and having our students fail.  We shield them from sadness and anything where they might not succeed, but at what cost?  We cannot shield them forever, we cannot control life and other people.  So why not help them through disappointing situations instead?  Why not have mini situations, such as a talent show, where we can help them process their feelings and give them tools they can use later in life as well.  Why not be role models rather than bubble creators?  Why not let them fail and then learn from that?  I would love your thoughts.

achievement, being a teacher, students, testing

So This Is How A Teacher Breakdown Starts

My students are doing their spring assessments as we prepare to wrap up the year and send them on their way.  An innocent computer check-in that takes less than an hour, nothing to be worried abot really.  The kids know it is not a big deal, to do their best, that this is only a snapshot of their skills on that particular day, at that particular time.

And yet….the dread is rising in me.  How will they do?  How will they feel about the test?  Will the test know that they are excited about the talent show results?  That they are hungry?  That they have had a high intensity day and their brains may be just a little zonked?  Of course it won’t, and why should it, the test doesn’t care one iota about my students.  

But I do and that is my problem.  With every point they gain or lose, my anxiety soars.  How will it affect me as a teacher if a child lost 4 points, whatever that means.  What did I do wrong since they didn’t make momentous gains on this test while in class they have blown me away with their increased participation, their inferences, and their overall depth of knowledge?  Why can’t the test understand that all of these kids have grown, whether they wanted to or not?  Why can’t the test prove that?

So I take a deep breath and let the results stand.  The tests are done, the points have been given and I am trying to piece together what I need to change.  What I need to salvage, what I need to challenge myself in.  And I breathe a little more, realizing that much like I told my students, I also need to believe that this is just a snapshot.  This is just a moment in their life, this moment in time where they are performing at this set level.  That this does not determine their future success, their future growth, or even their future.  Perhaps it will determine mine, but that I need to worry about another day.