On Student Talk and What to Look For

I am struck by the noise that surrounds us.  As I walk through my school, Oregon Middle, the voices of kids float through the open doors.  Sure, the teachers can be heard as well, but over and over, again and again, there the kids are.  Asking questions, discussing, getting passionate.  We are carried forward by the voices of the very kids we serve.  It makes me even prouder to be a teacher here.

And yet.  I think back to the days where I thought silence meant learning.

Where I thought deep engagement was almost always quiet.  Punctuated by brief answers facilitated by me to check for understanding.

Where I thought that if only I could get them to listen, then they would learn.

If only they would stop talking then they would really understand.

If only one child answered then surely that was engagement.

If only they turned and talked when I asked them that meant we were doing student talk right.

And while we still savor the quiet hush that surrounds us when we reach the zone with our books or with our thinking or with our writing, we also relish the noise that comes from student engagement.

But not just any type of noise, the productive kind.  The one that goes deeper.  The one that isn’t just because the kids are being compliant but because they actually care.  That is when student engagement is done right.  So what can we look for when we evaluate the types of noise our kids are making?

Who is making the noise? 

Is it you or is it them?  While there is much to be said for teacher-led discussion, at some point we have to turn it over so the kids can do the probing, the analyzing, and the digging deeper.  What if we didn’t give them all of the questions, but instead gave them the time to discuss?  What if we modeled it but then truly let them take the reigns, not just once in a while but almost always?  What if students came up with the discussion questions as well as moderated the flow?

How much noise is it?  

Is the noise contained to brief periods of time in your class or is it throughout?  Are students engaged outside of the questions we ask?  Are the teaching points inspiring them to care more?  To ask more?  To push their thinking?  Or is just having them discuss one thing and then lapsing into silence as they wait for the next direction?

Who controls the noise?

While I see many teachers embrace the “turn and talk,” I wonder how often that’s it for student talk.  I am guilty of this thinking;  as long as they turn and talk then surely there is student engagement.  Yet I have found that in my eagerness to get to the next thing, I have often cut off the kids from going deeper into their conversations.  That my desire to ask the next question has stopped their further inquiry.  That my casual discomfort with student silence means they are not getting time to just think.  I am working on seeing where it goes and following along when we can.

What emotions lie behind the noise?

I loved the discussion unfolding in our classroom today as students discussed “Who should get the baby?” after listening to an NPR podcast.  They were so upset, not with each other, but with the facts of the case, how it wasn’t black and white, and also how others were not agreeing with them.  To see this passion for a podcast as we discuss uncovering facts to change our perspective is exactly what I hope for; that they care about it.  That they speak up because they cannot imagine staying quiet.  That it matters enough for them to actually bother with adding their voice.

And for me that’s it; when I think of true student engagement through student talk, I look for the emotions.  How students speak.  Why they speak.  What they say, but also how they say it.  Within this exchange, we can gauge their interest.  We can see whether they are simply going through the motions or whether our class, our learning exploration, actually matters to them.  And so this is where we start, where I start every time I evaluate our student talk; with the emotional investment or lack thereof.  It turns out that the truth can really be found in how they speak their words.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child, out August 2017.  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.

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As I Plan My Lesson

It has been four days since I stood in my classroom and surveyed the books.  Four days since I got the papers ready.  Four days since I sharpened the pencils and then shut the door, ready to take a break.  My brain is now thinking of how in one day I go back.  rejuvenated, refreshed, excited, and yet…

Am I really ready to be the teacher that these kids so wholeheartedly need?

I keep seeing the ideas shared.  The quippy lines.  The hopes and dreams that we so eagerly pass on as reminders to one another.  The mantras, the quotes and even the blog posts that tell us how we should be teaching.  With urgency, with passion, with creativity.

We should see each child.

We should strive for more.

We should make it relevant.

We should make it challenging.

We should make it real-world learning, whatever that means.

And yet…

We say we want the students to talk, but are we quiet long enough to hear them?

We say we want innovative classrooms, but are we embracing new ideas, unafraid of change?

We say we want hands-on learning, but are we providing opportunities for that or are we stumped for how to do it?

We say we want kids to explore, but are we giving them the time to veer off our path?

We say we want choice, but are we giving it?

We share the ideas that others have and tell ourselves that they are right.  That we can do education better, but then fall into our same patterns as we shut our doors and get to teaching.  We nod our heads in agreement with all the pretty statements but then cannot find the time, the courage, or the know how to change.

So as I prepare for this Monday, I ask myself, is this everything you hoped it would be or could it be better?  And if so, how?

Perhaps I need to ask myself the following, and perhaps you should too:

  • How is there choice involved?
  • How are their voices heard?
  • How can they move around?
  • How can it be relevant to them?
  • How can it matter?
  • How can it be fun?
  • How will this help them grow?

And then I can plan my lesson.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child, out August 2017.  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.

 

Some Ideas for Better Student Revisions

I have never been good at helping students understand how to revise better.  It seems like every idea I have had has only made them more dependent on other people, rather than develop their own skills.  Sometimes I feel like I have tried it all; from checklists, to peers, to specific directions from me. From strengths to goals to next steps, for some reason the art of revising and revising well has not truly blossomed in our classroom.  Until now.  Because if the last two days are any indication, we are finally on to something.

This unit came from my own realization as a writer.  When I write, I edit as I go, but I also step away and give it time.  I don’t jump right back in even when my editor emails me back.  I marinate, I process, and I try to make it better when I finally do jump back in.  I take my time, I make it a priority and I don’t try to squeeze it in.  This is what I want my students to realize; that revising and editing creates more beautiful work.  That it is not just something a teacher makes you do.  That it is not just some thing on a check list.

So what have we done so differently these past few days?  Here are few things:

We stepped away from our written work for a while.  And by a while I mean over a month.  The two pieces my students have been revising were handed in before winter break. One is a short story, another is either an opinion piece or a summary.  Some of my students did very well, others did not do at all.  Before break they were asked to hand in their best draft (thank you Kelly Gallagher for that term) and then I told them to not do anything with them until I asked.  I told them that rather than they trying to figure out what to work on we would work on our revisions in class.

Why?  Because when we do revision during our writing process we cannot look at our own work with fresh eyes.  We get tired of it.  We don’t see our own mistakes.  We go through the process because the teacher told us to, not because we see anything wrong with what we have done.

We have one next step.  Inspired through a conversation with my friend Lauren, she told me how she tells her students what their specific next step is when she reads their writing.  I loved this idea; one next step, not ten things you still need to work on. So after my students had self-reflected on their work, I wrote what I saw as their strengths in their writing and then the very next thing they should work on next.

Why? This means that as a I handed my feedback to them, they knew where to start.  Instead of “just” trying to read the rubric, which most of them admit that they don’t read or understand, they knew how to get started.  Their process then developed from that next step.

We read our work aloud.  And not to get through it quickly but as if we are narrating our very own audiobooks.  My students do not believe me when I tell them that I read every thing I write aloud, but it’s true (I am reading this aloud as I type right now), however, this approach has helped me catch many mistakes.

Why?  I have been sharing with my students how when they read things aloud their ears often catch things that their eyes did not.  Once I got students to actually believe me, some moved into quiet spots and started to read.  They were often amazed at how many things they caught.

We edit on paper.  I asked every child to print their short story and hand it in.  Not because I needed it, but because they did.  On Wednesday, I handed it back to them as I asked them to read it aloud and then asked them to edit directly on it.  Not because we did not have computers in the room, but because they needed to see the mark ups that happen when we edit by hand.  As they read their story aloud, their papers filled in.  I did not tell them how to mark up their paper; they need to figure out their own symbols, but I told them I expected to see change.  And change I saw.

Why?  Because when they only edit on a computer they mistakenly believe that they either have little to change because there are no squiggly red lines, or they think they have already changed a lot.  When they sit with a paper version of their story they can see what they are changing, they can feel their story better, and they then get to type their changes into typed story.  This also offers them another hidden chance of editing their work.

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A student let me share their marked up paper after they were done editing it.

Everybody edits and revises.  Often times we only tell our kids who may not have mastered something to edit/revise their stories deeper.  We assume that the kids who show us strong written work already have edited/revised it a lot, but that is not always the case.  In fact, I have seen how little editing/revising some of my more developed writers do.

Why?  For this every child was expected to change their work, even the ones who clearly had exceeded expectations, because they need to realize that there is no such thing as perfect work.  We can always make something better, we can always polish something more.  And sure enough, some of my more developed writers made their stories even better.

We took our time.  This was a unit in itself, not just one day’s worth of activity.  This was an event, something important that I hope they carry with them.  I explained how when I taught younger grades we used checklists and fabricated peer edits to show them what to focus on but that now they were ready for the next step; the idea editing rather than a checklist.  This means that I offer them ideas of what they can work on and sometimes even where but that they must critically evaluate their own work to see what it needs.

Why?  This is hard work and deserves to be treated as such.  This is why it stood on its own and not just the two final days of our writing project unit.

I didn’t partner them.  While I love a great writing trio (trio so that one child doesn’t do all of the work), I purposefully did not put them with a  peer.  I instead wanted them to shape their own process by choosing who they could work with.  And they did, often trading computers and leaving each other comments.  Were the pairings always the most powerful?  No, but they were honest.

Why?  The kids knew that they could help each other and were chosen to be a help and so they did their best to offer critical feedback.  I also want them to make connections without me so that they can shape their own writing process.  It was exciting to see how much students supported each other when I got out-of-the-way.

Once again, I am in awe of the small tweaks that we can implement to create a better writing process.  I have seen incredible changes in the work that my students have revised.  I have seen care taken to a new degree.  I have seen a re-investment, rather than just a shrug off.  By giving them the time and elevating this process to something that was treated with importance, my students now see a larger value in editing.  Now the very next step is to help them hang on to that as they continue to shape their writing identities.

If you like what you read here, consider reading any of my books; the newest called Reimagining Literacy Through Global Collaboration, a how-to guide for those who would like infuse global collaboration into their curriculum, was just released.  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.  I am currently working on a new literacy book, called Passionate Readers and it will be published in the summer of 2017 by Routledge.  I also have a new book coming out December, 2017 .   Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

 

Planning for Flow in the Classroom

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Our classroom has been silent the last few days.  A stillness surrounding the students as they sit in thought, only interrupted by the occasional whisper.  I have felt rather useless, not teaching, barely speaking, and yet.  That stillness has been a sight to behold.  The stillness has been profound as students have sunk deeper and deeper into the work asking me to not interrupt.  Asking me to let them work.  And I have listen, and I have watched, in awe of what has unfolded.

My students have reached a state of flow.  That mental state where you are fully immersed in what you are doing and your brain is working optimally.  That zone that we teachers hope to develop every day so that students can learn deeply.  Yet ask most teachers whether their students reach flow daily or even weekly and they will tell you no.  Their days are too disjointed, we have too much to cover, too many things to do.  It seems as if we don’t have time for deep thinking these days.

So what changed in our room these past few days?  What changed for it to become this way?

I stopped doing an all class mini-lesson.  Instead, I have been pulling kids one-on-one as we work on their specific need.  The children that need extra support sit close by every day so that I can support them whenever they need, others come to me for help or I come to them.  That doesn’t mean there is no need for mini-lessons, just not right now for this unit.

We brought in music.  I always marvel at the students that can work intently while listening to music, yet year after year, I see it happen.  So some students listen to music as they work, submerged into their own world the music allows them to shut everything else off.  It heightens their focus, even though I will never understand how myself.  Music allows works wonders for those that tend to interrupt, they focus on their music rather than others.

They sit where they want and work how they want.  Some students are inn bean bags, others move tables.  I have a students that goes to the team area every day to work.  Some type, others write.  Choice surrounds us as students figure out how they work best and it allows them to get comfortable.

I spoke more quietly.  I can be rather loud as a teacher, so lowering my voice was not something that I often remember to do, but in doing so I have modeled it for my students.  They know to whisper, they know to not disturb others.

We speak for a few minutes before we start.  As students get ready, as students get settled, instructions and reminders are given.  And then I say, “Settle in, settle down.”  I repeat as necessary, almost like a mantra,  as the quiet slowly takes over the room.

The lights are off or low.  I have the most amazing window that allows a lot of natural light in.  Most days we have no overhead lights on and the simple dimness of the room signals to the students that we are in a quiet work zone.  The feel of the room from the moment they enter allows them to transition into the quiet, into the deeper thinking zone.

I don’t interrupt.  If a child is deep in thought, I think before I conference with them.  Perhaps today is not the day to check in, perhaps a glance over their shoulder is enough?  Too often our helpfulness interrupts flow rather than enhances it.  I leave a note for myself of who I need to meet with and keep track with check-marks.  I confer with every child every few days, sometimes just not on the day I had intended.

The first day we reached the state of flow, I was giddy, and yet also filled with trepidation, would we be able to reach it again?  When it happened again the following day, I started to pay attention.  The words of my students continue to surround me; let us work, give us time, teach us individually if you can.  and I try, and we work, and every day I marvel at the quiet, thankful of the thinking that is happening around me.

Note: I’m co-writing a book with John Spencer about flow in the classroom and student engagement. Go read his blog for great ideas on how to create environments where students are engaged.  Then go and check out any of his projects to be inspired further.  

If you are looking for a great book club to join to re-energize you in January, consider the Passionate Learners book club on Facebook.  We kick off January 10th.  

 

 

 

The Things I Did That Stopped A Love of Reading

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I have always had good intentions, my heart and mind has always been in the right place whenever I have done anything “to” my students.  I don’t think any teacher sets out to destroy, I don’t think any teacher wants to harm a child’s love of reading.  And yet, they say that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, and nowhere is that more visible than when it comes to our reading instruction.  When I look back upon the things that I have done, the things that I did because I thought they would help, but now know the results, oh boy. Well, let’s just say I am lucky that I have had amazing students that have helped me see the wrong in my rights.

So what did I do that was so wrong?  Over the last 7 years as a teacher, this is how I have changed based on feedback from my students.

Then:

I forced them to read certain books because I knew better.  Armed with levels and lessons, I have forced many a child in giving up the book they were certain to struggle through and handed them a better suited one.  Better suited based on levels, reading abilities, but typically not interest.

Now:

Students have free choice to read with few restrictions.  Throughout the year they have to read 25 books, 15 of which must be chapter books.  If a child is continuously abandoning books we discuss, adjust, and try new things.  We also spend time selecting books together and work on strategies to get through books that may be a bit out of their “level.”

Then:  

Students had to prove they had read either through worksheets or a reading log.  Worksheets never worked for me because they didn’t give me the deeper level thoughts I wanted, plus it meant that students had to read the same book, and reading logs are something I will never subject a child to again if I can help it.

Now:  

Students prove to me that they are reading in a myriad of ways without a reading log or a worksheet, the most common one being conversation.  We discuss books frequently in class and even within my 45 minute class period the students still get 10 minutes of independent reading time.  There are so many ways we can see whether a child is reading, we just have to tap into it.

Then: 

We did the whole class book throughout the year.  This was to make sure we had a common text to discuss and I also believed that my developing readers could learn a lot from the stronger readers (which I still believe), however, this format slowed down some kids while it burned out others.

Now:

We do the whole class read aloud.  Starting with the Global Read Aloud we have a whole class text read aloud every day as part of our mini-lesson.  Students can develop their discussion skills around a shared text and I have a text to use every day as a springboard.  Students are then still free to read whichever book they want and apply our strategies discussed to that one once the read aloud portion of the day is complete.

Then:

All students had to use post-its.  This was a way for me to see their thinking while they read, they would even hand them in.

Now:

Students show me their thinking however they want.  Some still use post-its which I have readily available, others their notebook, their blog, or any other way they can think of.  What matters is that they are finding a way for them to stop and think and then jot down their thoughts so that we can have some deep discussions.

Then:

I always had an independent text to use for every small group.  I always did guided reading with the same kids every week and we always had either a pre-selected book club book or a text that I had selected.  This way I could control the strategies we developed because I had pre-read everything and could thus lead the conversation.  Students answered questions but no real discussion ensued.

Now:

Sometimes I have a text but more likely I have a picture book.  Students and I read the text together and then work our way through it.  All ages love picture book sand I have been spent a lot of money getting great ones into the hands of my students.  We read the book and then apply the strategy to their own book right then and there so that I can see whether they fully understand it.  If a child needs extra time, I hold them back while I release the others.

Then:  

Students did book clubs with me as the guide.  This type of guided reading was something I worked very hard at but frankly it was exhausting.  I always had to read ahead and prepare the discussions so that I could lead the conversations.  Often I had a hard time keeping the 6 different books I was using straight, and trying to find multiple texts centered around the same theme was also hard.  Students did little discussion but at least they had a shared reading experience.

Now:

Students run the book clubs.  I check in and help them push their thinking but they set the pace, they select the books  based on group conversations, and they “manage” the club.  I have to step in once in a while to help a student who is not adhering to the group’s etiquette but mostly the students are in control.

Then:

Groups were created based on level.  I did not look at pace, interest, or specific skills needed, only what level the computer or Rigby said the child was at.  While this is a great place to start for the year I didn’t move past it until I realized this was not a great way for my students to learn from others.

Now:

Students are grouped based on needs.  Typically students go in and out of small groups that crop up throughout a week based on how they are doing on certain skills.  This means that students don’t feel labeled as beign a “bad” reader because they are not in the same group day after day.  They instead see that we are helping them with the skill they need and then released once they have it.

Then:

Students shared their reading lives with the class.  I always knew I wanted a classroom that was focused on reading, one in which reading took a central role throughout all curriculum.  One where our reading lives were visible to each other.   But I didn’t think to share it with others.

Now:

We share our reading with the world.  Students share their books on our blogs, ask for recommendations, and ask questions of other students that are reading the same book.  Our reading lives are not just something we discuss, it is up for everyone to discuss, and the world has a lot to offer.

There are so many things we choose to do within our reading instruction, or any instruction for that matter, that we think will help students, but end up robbing them of the spark that carries them forward as readers,  While some of these things may work for other teachers, they have not worked for me.  I am just grateful that my students have had the courage to tell me these things but they would not have done so if I hadn’t asked.  So please, if nothing else, ask your students what helps them become better readers and then do more of that.

I am a passionate  teacher in Wisconsin, USA,  who has taught 4th, 5th, and 7th grade.  Proud techy geek, and mass consumer of incredible books. Creator of the Global Read Aloud Project, Co-founder of EdCamp MadWI, and believer in all children. I have no awards or accolades except for the lightbulbs that go off in my students’ heads every day.  First book “Passionate Learners – Giving Our Classrooms Back to Our Students” can be purchased now from Powerful Learning Press.   Second book“Empowered Schools, Empowered Students – Creating Connected and Invested Learners” is out now from Corwin Press.  Follow me on Twitter @PernilleRipp.