Friday, June 16, 2017

Rethinking Student Feedback

 Imagine the impact on learning if classroom teachers gave feedback the way athletic coaches provided their feedback. Think about music teachers or art teachers and how they observe and coach a student during practice.

Too often classroom teachers provide disconnected feedback after the student has completed the practice, rather than during. When a teacher observes a students's practice and provides feedback in real time, the student is able to make adjustments before practicing incorrectly. The impact on learning can be significant. Perhaps with the rise of a flipped classroom model, more teachers will use class time for observing and providing feeback on student practice.

Friday, June 2, 2017

The Secret to Unlocking Literary Analysis and Boosting Reading Comprehension: Topic, Theme & Main Idea

 When English Language Arts or Reading teachers master teaching the universal, literary concepts of topic, theme, and main idea, students develop a skill set that allows them to successfully frame literary works for proper analysis. Students need this skill set to interact with texts from a variety of genres. Relying on the learning standards at each grade level to guide teachers when to introduce each literacy component is key to students successfully understanding the unique role of each literary element.

It seems simple, but as a literacy specialist there have been numerous occasions I've observed teachers who don't seem clear on the  differences of topic, theme and main idea.   These foundational literacy concepts span learning standards from kindergarten to high school. If lower grade teachers understand and teach their standards correctly, then when theme enters the scene in upper grades, the differences won't confuse older students. 

Secondary students often struggle with the difference between main idea and theme. After observing many English Language Arts classrooms, it became apparent to me that many teachers struggle as well. Knowing the differences before tackling a lesson will ensure teachers are able to guide students in their understanding of each literary element. 

Planning tip: Try identifying Topic, Theme, and Main Idea of short selections in teacher planning sessions prior to teaching the lessons to students. Practice as a group, or write short stories that highlight each literary element.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Content Literacy: Content Teachers & Reading Teachers Pair up for Student Success

Reading across content areas is critical to student success. An aligned campus wide literacy approach can lead to huge gains for struggling readers. For example, by strategically matching the expository text, i.e. content, in science and social studies classes with the expository literacy strategies in language arts classes (ELA classes) students interact with both the content and the text structure multiple times for a variety of purposes. It’s takes planning and organization to make the cross-curriculum alignment happen. Campus leadership can provide time for ELA teachers to work with other content teachers to select texts for both classes. Texts selected must meet the literature requirements for a genre study in ELA, but also provide the content needed for other classes. These purposeful interactions can lead to greater retention and increased achievement across the subject areas. Fountas and Pinnell, 2001, remind educators that even advanced students or students reading above grade level benefit from a coordination of content and literacy instruction. Providing a practical example of such integration, Austin ISD boasts of a campus that embraced the notion of content literacy in a campus wide effort to align research and writing across the curriculum.

 One highly effective school began the school year by organizing calendars for research project  assignments across every subject area. (The calendar helped to ensure that students were not slammed with 3 or 4 research papers due at the same time.) …In this school, even the physical  education and fine arts faculty participated. In P.E. students were required to write an article for a sports page in the school newspaper or write a biography of a famous athlete. Students in art class were required to research a theme in art or describe a style common in a certain period of history. At this school, every student was writing a paper for every teacher every 3 to 6 weeks, and the student success in all subject areas was significantly increased. And as a side benefit, no one teacher bore the brunt of grading all of those papers and giving students feedback. All of the teachers accepted their role as literacy teachers. (AISD, 2012, p. 65) 

 Content teachers need not be overwhelmed by the notion of teaching language arts and reading. There are small, yet effective teaching moves that can facilitate the merge of interdisciplinary learning standards. For example, content area teachers can use activities that activate prior knowledge of the academic discipline that do not require laborious reading initially. By working with the reading teacher, content teachers can provide students with instructional leveled reading that allows students to build on the prior knowledge while extrapolating new information from the texts. As the vocabulary and content knowledge build, the complexity of the content text can increase providing more opportunities for students to interact with authentic disciplinary texts, such as journal articles or traditional text books. (Lee & Spratley, 2010) The stronger the planning relationship between content teacher and ELA teacher, the more intentional and effective content literacy lessons become.

 “AISD Comprehensive Literacy Handbook.”, AISD Department of English Arts, 2012, Accessed 10 May 2017.

 Fountas, Irene C., and Gay Su. Pinnell. Guiding readers and writers: teaching comprehension, genre, and content literacy. Portsmouth, NH, Heinemann, 2001.

Lee, C.D., Spratley, A. (2010). Reading in the disciplines: The challenges of adolescent literacy. New York, NY: Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Is There a "Best" Method of Teaching? Yes & No...

As an educational consultant, my job is to provide instructional coaching and support to districts and campuses that are seeking ways to refine teaching practices and increase student achievement. When working with campuses I'm frequently asked, "what are the best teaching methods?". My answer is always the same, "it varies". This response is often met with sighs of exasperation as teachers are sincerely seeking a beeline to best practice. Understandably, teachers who feel pressured to cover a large amount of content in a limited amount of time want a quick and easy response. However, as rushed as we may feel, student-centered teaching methods are the goal of every engaging classroom. What do student-centered teaching methods look like you ask? Well... it varies. Ideally, a teacher would limit direct instruction to small increments of time, then during guided practice provide individualized support based on each child’s learning style. Often teachers feel this type of teaching takes too much time. However, when students receive instruction that is aligned with their unique learning styles, mastery time is expedited and teaching becomes more efficient. In other words, as we differentiate we maximize student learning and increase mastery of the content, which ultimately reduces the need for remediation and increases student achievement. Kendra Strange, Ed.D.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

High School Reading Instruction: A Must to Ensure All Students Secure Their Future Freedom

As educators, it is our duty to ensure every child becomes a proficient  reader in order to ensure they preserve their future freedom.  

The words of Frederick Douglass, "Once you learn to read you will be forever free", reminds educators of the monumental charge of preserving a literate society. Elementary teachers are often passionate and committed to the necessity of teaching a child to read. However as secondary teachers, often the art of teaching a student to read understandably takes a back seat to literary content and analysis. 

Can we teach reading in a secondary setting?  
Principals and other educational leaders must create a pathway for secondary English Language Arts teachers to have the opportunity to provide reading instruction to secondary students who still need foundational reading instruction, while simultaneously proving on level content instruction. This is no easy task in the scheme of a large comprehensive high school setting. So often the need to teach reading remediation in high school is overlooked, or at best is provided via pull-out or in a disconnected (from primary English) class.  Ideally, the two would be provided in a connected manner meaning the students' on level English teacher is given the opportunity to also provide the remedial reading instruction. This model creates a connection between the content in English class and the reading support, which accelerates instruction while remediating basic reading skills. 

How do we get there? 
This literary-content-reading-remediation structure doesn't occur naturally in a traditional high school setting. Teachers who need time to teach reading must advocate for a schedule that allows time to reach struggling students, and principals must prioritized literacy in master schedules. Additionally, central administration must lead conversations that include exploring options for creative scheduling that includes additional blocks of time for reading instruction.  

When school leaders, content teachers and central administrators have literacy as their focus, students would be less likely to be lost in a high school setting and continue to struggle with reading through adulthood.  Educators, regardless of position held, are charged with providing every opportunity for every student to become strong, competent readers, i.e. ensuring  their future freedom.   

Friday, January 13, 2017

Problem Solving Includes Allowing for Failure

Real teaching provides students opportunities to problem solve. This instructional practice includes allowing students to fail and try again. So often we fail to provide those key opportunities to students. When educators end the process at failure, we omit the significant "retry" step. Where would the world be if famous thinkers such as Einstein were not allowed a "do over"?
Dr Kendra Strange Shaffer @drkendrastrange

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Principal as Instructional Leader: Basic, Yet Important Cautions for New Principals

Give Teachers What They Need
As new principals take the helm of a campus they are equipped with much leadership theory and ideas of best practices. Principals are often faced with two paths one focuses on practice and the other theory. However, instructional leadership is not theory vs. practice. Rather, think of it as theory with practice. A conscientious principal recognizes the needs of their teachers. Some teachers need to understand the “why” before the “how”, and some just need a place to start, i.e. the “how”. A good instructional leader provides both, because both are important to growing teachers’ best practice capacity. For example, if a teacher abandons the archaic practice of the weekly spelling list simply because their new principal asked them to, the teacher’s best practice capacity hasn’t grown. However, if the principal takes the time to grow the faculty’s understanding of “why” spelling lists are not best instructional practice, teachers’ capacity for creating meaningful lessons across the curriculum is expanded. When a teacher understands why learning spelling in context, across several platforms, across various content leads to real learning, that teaching skill is transferable to other learning standards.

Therefore, the caution for new principals is two-fold. First, taking too much time to build the understanding of theory before implementing best practice sacrifices precious learning time for students. Second, jumping in and directing teachers to abandon a lesser practice, such as a weekly spelling list, can have isolated instructional impact.

Lastly, don’t forget that adage; if you take something out of a teachers’ instructional toolkit, replace it. Model the best practice you are asking your teachers to implement. Keeping with our spelling example, model how to teach spelling patterns across multiple texts by having teachers read short articles and locate the spelling patterned from the model lesson. Pull up the daily news online and have teachers use laser pointers to find examples of the spelling rule in context. As you walk classrooms, video examples of teachers attempting to use the highlighted best practice in their lessons and share with faculty. Take pictures of students work samples with captions reading, “Ms. Teachers’ class practices identifying phonics patterns during guided reading”, or “Mr. Instructor has students locate this week’s phonics patter in word problems during math class”.

By positively highlighting teachers’ attempts to replace a lesser instructional practice with best instructional practice, the culture of the staff begins to change and resistance is defused.

Give Parents What They Need
A second caution for new principals as you lead your campus into best instructional practice. Many lesser practices have been around for decades, and often our parents struggle with letting go of them as much as some teachers struggle. Imagine as a parent you have had three children in Ms. Teacher’s second grade class, and for some reason this year you did not receive the spelling list your first two children received. This can be unsettling for parents, especially if they are not prepared ahead of time.

New principals do yourself a big favor, communicate with your parents as you introduce instructional change. Assume nothing. Work with your grade level chairs to create a back to school and a monthly newsletter that explains what will be taught and how it will be assessed; link research articles to lend credibility to the change if needed. Use this platform to give parents heads up about why things may be a little different this year. Inform your PTA about your instructional focus. This will give you a mouthpiece in the community and a buffer as needed.

Lastly, prepare your teachers to respond to parent concerns in a supportive, non-defensive manner. Teachers should not have to feel as though they are caught in the middle or defending a principal’s new initiative. Rather, if a teacher can articulate to a parent the “why” behind the practice and present the best practice as their own, most parents will embrace the change. It’s important to prepare your teachers ahead of time for these difficult discussions with parents. The more prepared teachers feel, the more comfortable they will be when parents express concerns over changes.

<a href="">Dr. Kendra Strange</a>