During the morning break at a summer conference, a teacher followed me to the table with coffee and water. Breathless and excited, she told me, “I’ve just finished my lesson plans for the year!” Statements like this always flummox me because I don’t want to hurt the teacher’s feelings or dismiss the hours of hard work that went into this type of planning. Questions, instead of reactive comments, often stir reflection. So I asked two: Have you considered the nature of each learner entering your class? Have you noticed that students grow and change throughout the school year?” We never made it to the coffee/water table, but more important, the teacher asked if we could continue our conversation at the end of the day. She left knowing that lessons respond to what students need and that these needs change daily because students grow and change as learners and move from dependence to independence all year long.
When pacing guides or covering the Common Core State Standards drive instruction, it’s easy to forget that we are teaching human beings and that each student who enters our classrooms brings a unique set of experiences and diverse prior knowledge and attitudes toward school and learning. The child, not covering curriculum, should be the focus of instruction. If we focus on pacing and covering material, dozens of students will experience backward slides due to the confusions that develop from not understanding content and vocabulary.
Respond to Your Students” Needs and Learning Styles
One thought that I keep in the forefront of my mind before school starts and throughout the school year is the importance of knowing every student and responding to each one’s needs throughout the year. I also have come to know that all of us, adults and students, can learn independently, but we are also dependent or developing learners when we have little to no background knowledge and vocabulary related to a topic. To encourage thoughtful discussions and reflection about teaching practices, you can read, think about, and discuss with colleagues the ten teaching and learning principles that follow. These conversations are a beginning. Extend the learning and reflective talk by reading and discussing articles from professional journals,
Reflect on These Ten Teaching & Learning Principles
- Get to Know Your Students
Use interest and reading inventories to get to know more about your students. Invite them to write about what they hope to learn in your class. Encourage students to help you understand their strengths and needs for a specific subject, skill or strategy by asking them to complete a “What’s Easy? What’s Hard?” inventory and add the skill or topic you want students to write about. However, before you invite students to share, complete the form or answer the question in front of the class so they get to know you as a learner and understand the process and expectations for responding.
- Create a Community of Learners
Getting to know students is a step towards creating a bond among them or developing feelings of community. Investigate workshop as a way of organizing your class because workshop structure develops community by having students learn and work in pairs, small groups, and independently. Negotiation also develops community because students have choices, as well as discuss and help set schedules and deadlines.
- Develop Book Lovers
Read aloud every day class meets, books, poems, and short texts that you love. Develop students’ personal reading lives by making independent reading as important as instructional reading: forty to sixty self-selected books a year. The good news is that you don’t have to monitor every book students read on their own. However, you should have students enter completed or abandoned books in a book log. Have them present a monthly book talk and teach them to confer with one another about their books, document the conference, and turn it into you. Invite students to blog about favorite books, write book reviews posted online and/or a class bulletin board. (For more details see Teaching Reading in Middle School, 2nd edition and Chad, link them to Professional Study, “Independent Reading” on my webiste.)
- Be a Responsive Teacher
Continually circulate among students and stop to support them as needed. Carry a clipboard with dated sticky notes and jot your observations or the highlights of you brief conversation; give the sticky note to the student as a reminder. Ongoing observations allow you to respond to students’ learning by pinpointing and repairing small misunderstandings before they become large obstacles.
- Build Students’ Mental Models
Present mini-lessons and think aloud to showcase your process and model for students how you apply a skill or strategy. Invite students to ask questions or make observations about what they saw. Once students have a mental model of a process, they can replicate it independently. After you model a process, students can work with a partner to try the strategy and share their thinking with classmates.
- Use Formative Assessment
The purpose of formative assessments is to inform the teacher of students’ progress. Formative assessment occurs every day, all day long as you interact with students to check their understanding, observe their body language and behaviors. In addition, students’ written work is ideal for formative assessment as it lets you know comprehension of content and concepts as well as writing strengths and needs. Even tests and exams can be one of many formative assessments as long as teachers use them for more than a grade. Tests and quizzes can identify students’ strengths, needs, and provide teachers with information that enables them to develop a plan that supports students with scaffolds and/or reteaching.
Moving away from one text for all to differentiating reading materials makes sense because each student has an opportunity to learn and improve. Organize a reading unit around a genre and theme and have students read in the genre at their instructional level. For example, a study of biography can be organized around the theme of obstacles. Students read about different men and women; common discussion points include how each person dealt with and overcame specific obstacles, the personality traits that enabled each to cope with challenging events and achieve success, and the structure of the genre.
It’s possible to offer students choice with instructional reading by forging a relationship with your public and school librarians. About two weeks prior to starting a unit, ask both librarians to pull books for the instructional reading levels in your classes. Ask the librarians to jot the instructional reading levels on sticky notes and place them on the book’s cover. Add books from your class library and create stacks that students can choose from, but remove the sticky notes.
- Encourage Meaningful Talk
Motivation to read increases when students have opportunities to talk about texts with peers because reading becomes social. When pairs or small groups discuss the same or different texts they practice close reading, using text evidence to support positions, and exploring themes. In addition, they improve listening skills and the ability to clearly express thoughts and hunches.
- Teach Vocabulary
The NAEP study from 2009-2012 shows a tight correlation between students’ vocabulary strength and reading comprehension! To be effective and comprehensive, vocabulary instruction should occur daily for 10 to 15 minutes in all subjects. The focus of instruction should be on general academic words because they occur in all disciplines. Lists of general academic words are available online. Don’t teach the lists. Instead, directly teach general academic words that are in books you read aloud, in the anchor text, you’re using, in short, complex instructional materials, and in textbooks.
10. Invite Students To Write About Reading
The research of Steve Graham and Michael Hebert in Writing to Read: Evidence for How Writing Can Improve Reading shows that integrating writing about reading and writing workshop into English or language arts can improve reading comprehension. You can download a free copy of this study at www.carnegie.org/literacy.
When students write about reading, they record, in readers’ notebooks, responses such as summaries, reactions to a quote, a character’s decisions, or link information within or across texts.
The Principal’s Corner
You can encourage teachers to reflect on the “Ten Teaching & Learning Principles” in this newsletter by having groups discuss them during your opening faculty meetings and revisiting them throughout the year during team and department meetings. Discuss the ten principles with your administrative team and collaborate with teachers to find professional journal articles and professional books that relate to the ten principles.
Organize teachers as readers study groups that you and members of your administration attend. The purpose of meaningful discussions among teachers about professional reading and class practices is for teachers to integrate best practice principles into their lessons and improve students’ learning.
Tell teachers that during your walkthroughs you will be looking for ways teachers integrate these principles into daily lessons. Also encourage teachers to observe and learn from one another. By learning together and sharing ideas, you will create a community of learners among your staff and equally important, develop a reflective stance that leads teachers to question and refine their practices.
Evan Robb, Principal Johnson Williams Middle School and author of: The Principal’s Leadership Sourcebook, Scholastic, 2007