Sticking to one Topic:  How can Writers Plan and Write a 1 Paragraph Response to a Question?

This is a mini-unit I wrote several years ago.  It is targeted to a small class of 8th and 9th graders with significant reading and writing challenges.  Obviously, if you are in a 21st Century classroom, use any 1:1 application you can in order to cut down on paper use.  I would re-do these lessons within Edmodo or Nearpod for my 1:1 iPad classroom   This mini-unit goes along with the book:  Writing Skills (2004) by Diana Hanbury King

Lesson 1:  Categorizing: Sorting Information to Answer the Question

Objectives:

  • Students will understand how to take a list of brainstorm “ideas” and separate them into categories.
  • Students will understand that the “categories” indicate the “main idea” or “topic” of their paragraphs.

Materials:  pencils/pens or other writing implements, and paper

Special note:  to be done in conjunction with The Iliad

Steps:

  • Explain that writers stick to one topic in paragraphs and they plan it out. All good writers begin with a brainstorm.
  • “We’re going to brainstorm some items together. We’ve been reading The Iliad so we’re going to use subjects related to the book.  I will give the subject and you all will tell me things to write down.” (spend about 10 mins)
    • Characters from the story
    • Character traits of Achilles
    • Character traits of Paris
  • “Now we’re going to separate our lists into categories. Let’s look at the kind of items we listed for [name of list].”   Read each list and separate the items into categories.  If they have trouble coming up with categories for the lists you can guide them (for example, “Characters from the story” might have categories like:  “gods,” “goddesses,” “heroes.”  “Character traits of Achilles” might have categories like: “likeable traits,” and “unlikable traits.”) (5-10 mins).
  • Explain how the separate categories each become a topic with details related to it.
  • Practice individually with easy subjects like: “animals,” “items in [name a room of a house],” and/or “food.”  Help them come up with categories and list the items that go within the categories.  (10-15mins).
  • “Now you’re going to try it with a subject we’ve been discussing. Get a piece of paper and write down ‘everything related to being a hero.’”  Give them 2 mins.
  • “Now read your list and find at least 2 categories.” If they have trouble you can guide them with ideas like “physical traits,” “personality traits,” and/or “deeds.”  “Separate your items into your 2 categories.” (5-10 mins).

 

Lesson 2:  Topic Sentences:  Letting the Reader Know What You’re Going to Say

Objectives:

  • Students will give category names for lists of items and will continue to practice placing items into categories
  • Students will create sentences from category names and learn that these are called topic sentences

Materials:  writing implements and paper.  Prepare ahead of time:  words on post it notes for students to physically move into categories that they have named—give each student 10-15 words, each on a separate post-it, but related to a specific subject which can be broken down into at least 2 categories.  Use words relating to subjects such as:  hobbies, animals, foods, movies, rap songs, car parts…or others.   Put the post-its randomly on a large piece of construction paper (each student will get 1 large piece of construction paper with 10-15 post-its on it). Also prepare ahead of time:  a worksheet with several items listed so students can practice naming categories.  This sheet will also be used for writing topic sentences.

Steps:

  • Warm-up (together): “Let’s list everything we can think of relating to the Greek gods and goddesses.” (take 1 min to list—each student makes their own list).
  • “Make 2 categories for the list you just made.”  If students need guidance, give them some suggestions such as—“goddesses,” “gods,” “their domains,” “their symbols.” (5-10 mins).  Read and share.
  • “Now I’m going to give you each a bunch of words that have been grouped together.  You are going to figure out the categories.  Read the post-its and then move them into your 2 or 3 categories.” (5-10 mins).  When this activity is done, have students each read their category title and then list the items they moved into that category. (5-10 mins).  Each student should have at least 2 categories with 5-8 items in each.
  • On an overhead—quick review:  list several countries then have students give you the name of the category; list several snack foods and have students give you the category; list several brands of shoes and have students give you the category. (5 mins).
  • Hand out the sheet you prepared ahead of time with the lists of items.  They will individually practice naming the category. (10 mins)
  • “Now we need to practice writing our category names into sentences.  This will be practice for writing topic sentences for paragraph writing.”  Explain that you need to put the words of the category name into a sentence that will tell the reader what we are talking about.  Use examples from the quick review:  for “countries” write something like:  “There are many countries in the world.”  For “snack foods” get their ideas and write them down.  They might be something like:  “There are many delicious foods available to eat for snacks.”  For “brands of shoes” get ideas from students and write them down.  They might be something like:  “There are many brands of shoes to buy.”  Students can then practice writing topic sentences with the post-it categories they had. Students share what they wrote when all done. (10 mins)
  • Students then take the worksheet and write sentences for the category names.  Go over it together to make sure all students have written good topic sentences. (10 mins)

Lists of items to make into a worksheet (they will come up with the category name and during another part of the lesson write the category name into a sentence).

Group 1:  pencil, paper, eye contact, directions (things needed to do school work)

Group 2:  snowboarding, ice skating, skiing, ice climbing (winter activities)

Group 3:  brush teeth, eat breakfast, get dressed, comb hair (getting ready for school)

Group 4:  Achilles, Agamemnon, Odysseus, Menelaus (Greek heroes in Iliad)

Group 5:  Zeus, Athena, Apollo, Aphrodite (Greek gods and goddesses)

Lesson 3: Details and Keywords: Organizing What you Want to Say to the Reader

Objectives:

  • Students will practice turning sentences into keywords
  • Students will expand lists of details using the key word strategy

Materials:  writing implements, examples projected or where the group can see them with copies for each student with sentences relating to The Iliad and/or current vocabulary.  Individual worksheets as required with sentences (to be turned to keywords).  Worksheet from lesson 2.  Additional worksheet with lists of details to expand into keywords.

Steps:

  • Explain that outlining what we write or taking notes can be faster if we use just keywords from a sentence. We take the important words only.  Practice together with projected examples.  After a few examples, students should be able to tell you which words to use and continue working together for practice.  (5-10 mins).
  • Give them a different sheet for them to do for individual practice. (5-10 mins).
  • Explain: when preparing your details for writing, you have to expand them a little bit so you know what you want to say about them.  Take out the worksheet from lesson 2 and look at the first list of words (pencil, paper, eye contact, directions).  Write those down on a separate piece of paper.
  • “We know that the category is ‘things needed for schoolwork.’ Let’s expand these details a little bit.” Ask them “what about the pencil?” etc… or “why do we need [name of item]”?  Write down what they say—then turn it into key words.  Example:  They may say “you need a pencil to do the writing.”  Write the sentence.  Turn it to key words:  pencil/writing.  When you’ve done this task you should have a detail list in keywords for each of the groups of words from the worksheet.  Doing 1 or 2 more together should reinforce the pattern:  say the sentence, write the sentence, turn it to keywords.  They can finish the sheet on their own.  (10-15 mins).
  • Have another sheet handy for additional practice if needed. (10-15 mins).

Items for individual practice (sentences to be turned to keywords):

  1. Hector and Paris were brothers in ancient Troy.
  2. Paris was banished as a baby because he was going to be the downfall of Troy.
  3. Paris was secretly brought up by a shepherd instead of being killed.
  4. Paris returned to Troy and a joyous reunion from his family.
  5. Paris fell in love with Helen and brought her back to Troy.
  6. Helen left her husband Menelaus and the city of Sparta to be with Paris.
  7. Menelaus gathered the Greek troops and sailed for war with Troy.
  8. The war lasted ten years and many Greeks and Trojans died.
  9. Helen never really loved Menelaus if she left him so easily for Paris.
  10. The Greeks tricked the Trojans so they thought the Greeks had gone.
  11. The Trojans celebrated by bringing the Trojan Horse into the city.
  12. They didn’t know the horse actually had 25 Greeks inside ready to let the rest of the fleet into the city.
  13. Achilles was seething with Agamemnon and refused to fight anymore.
  14. Achilles wanted vengeance after his friend Patroclus was killed by Hector.

Items for additional practice:

Zeus, Hera, Aphrodite, Athena

Topic sentence:  Each god or goddess chose a side to help during the Trojan war and aided that side in any way they could.

(leave space for them to write the sentence then turn it to keywords)

Achilles, Agamemnon, Briseis, Fight

Topic sentence:  Achilles’ decision at end of the war had a big impact during the last year of fighting.

(leave space…)

Treaty, losing, coward, fighting

Topic sentence:  At one point during the last year of fighting, everyone thinks the war will end with a simple duel between Paris and Menelaus.

(leave space…)

Patroclus, death, vengeance, Hector

Topic sentence:  The Greeks are losing the war, so Achilles makes a decision which will change his life and the outcome of the war.

 

Lesson 4:  Putting it Together: Planning your Response to the Question

Objectives:

  • Students will break down writing into small steps when given questions to answer in paragraph form:  brainstorming, categorizing, detailing in keywords and writing a topic sentence.

Materials:  questions (general—for practice together, and relating to The Iliad for individual work).  Examples prepared ahead of time with quick reviews:  sentences to keywords, keywords to sentences, category names to topic sentences.

Steps:

  • Quick review together:  change sentences to keywords; change keywords to sentences; come up with topic sentences (10 mins)
    • Sentence Review:  Yesterday, I went to the store and bought milk.  Tomorrow I need to go to the dentist.  Wednesday is the middle day of the week. (or similar sentences).  Keywords Review:  Burlington/city/Vermont; Iliad/story/war/love; Zeus/king/angry/lightening.  Topic Sentences Review:  things in a kitchen drawer; reasons to fight a war;  ways to say No to someone.
  • Let’s practice answering questions using our new brainstorming and keyword strategies.”  Give the question:  Write a paragraph that discusses different hobbies people enjoy and why they enjoy them.  “This is a question a teacher might expect you to write a paragraph about.”  Explain how to break down the task into steps using the strategies we’ve practiced.
  • Step 1 should be to brainstorm the hobbies you know and why people enjoy them.
  • Step 2 should be to narrow the topic by making categories and sorting the list.
  • Step 3 should be to turn the details into keywords.
  • Step 4 should be to write a topic sentence for the details.
      • They may come up with something like: photography/artistic; snowboarding/active/exciting; gaming/relaxing; reading/relaxing/enjoyable.  With a topic sentence like:  People usually choose hobbies that suit their needs.
  • Give another writing question for group practice:   Discuss the reasons people should graduate from high school.  Again, break it down into steps.  If they need another question for practice choose from these:  Should students have to wear uniforms—why or why not?;   Should students be allowed to use cell phones in school—why or why not?. (20-25 mins total for all group work)
  • Give individual practice sheet or examples—they should get a keyword detail list and a topic sentence for each question, the point is not to write out the answers in paragraphs…yet (10-15 mins)
      • Questions for individual work:  1. Discuss your reasons supporting whether or not Achilles is a hero.   2.  Is Paris a hero?  Why or why not.   3.  How would the story have been different if Patroclus had not died?   4.  What would have been different if Hector had not been killed?

Lesson 5:  Concluding Sentences and The Quick Outline:  Finishing What you Want to Say

Objectives:

  • Students will learn 4 ways to write a concluding sentence
  • Students will write concluding sentences for the questions they did in the previous lesson
  • Students will practice the Quick Outline method for planning their writing

Materials:  handout with concluding sentence ideas, quick outline handout, quick review, prepared concluding sentence topics (on overhead/worksheets).

Steps:

  • Quick review, group activity: putting sentences into keywords/writing keywords into sentences.  Use the following (prepared ahead of time on an overhead) Helen/Paris/love/war; Hector/Achilles/duel/death; King Priam bravely went into the Greek camp to ransom his son’s body.  Achilles was shot in the heel with an arrow which killed him. (5 mins).
  • Quick review, group activity: project 2 paragraphs for group discussion—students read them, identify the topic sentences and the supporting details.  They transfer the details to keywords. (5 mins)
  • Discuss the format for the brainstorming: it is called a quick outline.  Show them how to fill in the quick outline sheet using the details and topic sentences they have already written from lesson 4.  Fill out 4 quick outlines (one for each question).  Point out that the “C.S.” line is still not filled in because we are about to learn how to do that.
  • Hand out the “Concluding Sentences” sheet you prepared with the 4 types of concluding sentences. Read, discuss relationship of T.S and C.S.  Practice with prepared topics together. (10-15 mins).  Make a sheet of prepared topic sentences or just write them on an overhead—together come up with and write 4 possible concluding sentences for each TS on an overhead sheet.
    • Use these topic sentences for practice: There are many ways to spend a weekend day.  Sometimes directions people give are unclear.  The Trojan War was a long and useless war.
  • Each student should write 3 or 4 different concluding sentences for their Iliad questions begun in lesson 4—then they should choose the one they like best and write it on their quick outlines. (15 mins). These outlines will be used in lesson 6.
  • Review the steps to writing a paragraph response to teacher questions: brainstorm and categorize, outline the details using keywords, write the topic sentence and then the concluding sentence (use the QO form).  (5 mins)

Lesson 6:  Outline to Paragraph and Paragraph to Outline:  When you Stick to Your Plan, The Writing is Clear

Objectives:

  • Students will transfer paragraphs that have already been written into QO format
  • Students will write paragraphs from a QO

Materials:  prepared ahead of time—4 paragraphs that have topic sentences, details and concluding sentences; quick outlines of Iliad questions (begun in lesson 4 and finished in lesson 5).  3 paragraphs that have topic sentences, details and concluding sentences—but which have been written out of order.  2-3 sample quick outlines.

Steps:

  • Quick review, as a group:  scrambled paragraphs.  Read the scrambled sentences and put them in the proper order. (10 mins)
  • As a group put the first of the 4 paragraphs into QO format, then have students individually put the other 3 into QO format on their own. (15 mins).
  • As a group, look at the first sample quick outline and write it into a paragraph.  Emphasize how the topic sentence is already there, putting each detail into sentences is just like what we practiced with keywords to sentences, then the concluding sentence is already there. Practice with another group one if necessary and do the last one individually or have them practice with the last 2 on their own.
  • Students should then be able to write their QO’s from their Iliad questions into 4 separate paragraphs.

4 Paragraphs that you can use for this lesson:

  1. Monday is an unpopular day of the week.  People look at Monday on the calendar and realize that they still have 4 more days to go through until they get to the weekend.  On Monday mornings, people sometimes have trouble getting up because they are used to “sleeping in” on Saturday and Sunday mornings.  In popular culture, Mondays have often been associated with bad feelings and loud groans.  If people could sleep through Mondays altogether, they might be able to avoid all those bad feelings.
  1. There are many animals that are endangered due to human activity.  Many species of whales were hunted nearly to extinction in the last century and now they are having trouble recovering.  Pandas are losing their natural habitat in the bamboo forests of China because of humans using the land for their own purposes.  Polar bears have less ice to live and hunt on because of the warming oceans and climate change due to human activity.  Humans need to change their ways if animals and humans are to live together in harmony.
  1. Summer is a favorite time of the year for many people.  Because it is so warm, people are outside more and enjoying the weather.  There are many things to do in the summer that can’t be done in the winter.  Students are on vacation and can spend their days doing things they enjoy.  Summer is an amazing time of year.
  1. Reading is an important, yet rewarding skill to master.  There is a ton of information that can be obtained from the pages of a book, so knowing how to understand the information is important.  When people read for fun, they are “transported” to a whole world where they can escape reality for awhile.  When someone reads well, then lots of things are easier for them to master.  Everyone should have the opportunity to learn to read better.

3 sample quick outlines for this lesson:

TS:  There are many things to enjoy at the fair.

Ride/rides/enjoyment/fear

Eat/food/spicy/sweet

See/animals/vegetables

Side shows/laugh/question realism

CS:  At the fair, there is something for everyone to do and enjoy.

TS:  There are several Greek gods and goddesses who the ancient Greeks attributed to parts of the Trojan War and its outcome.

Aphrodite/love/golden apple/Paris/promised Helen

Zeus/king/forbid others help/enjoyed humans toiling

Athena/wisdom/guided Greek Heroes

Hephaestus/blacksmith/forged armor/Achilles/new life to Greeks

CS:  If the ancient Greeks and Trojans blamed all their fortunes or misfortunes on gods and goddesses, then they didn’t need to take responsibility for their own actions.

TS:  There are several legends, all involving one man, that are said to have caused the famous Trojan War.

Paris/not killed/baby/secretly raised

Eris/not invited wedding/mischief with golden apple

Paris/Aphrodite winner/awarded with love

Paris/Helen/leave Sparta

CS:  There were many accounts told by the ancient Greeks that supposedly led to the Trojan War, but no single person could ever be responsible for such a tragic chain of events.

3 paragraphs you can scramble (from National Geographic Kids Magazine  September 2007):

 

  1. Rabies is a dangerous disease, but it is relatively rare.  Only 1 or 2 people in the US develop rabies every year, but thousands are exposed.  Stay safe by never handling wild animals or petting neighborhood animals whose owners you don’t know.  Rabid animals are rare, but if you are bitten seek medical attention immediately.  When you know more about the risks, you can prevent yourself from ever getting Rabies.
  1. The last thing anyone expected to see in the middle of a road was a seal pup.  But, there it was, eight miles from its ocean habitat in the North Irish Sea.  Luckily, the seal pup was healthy and unharmed, so it was released back into its habitat.  The mystery remains unsolved as to how it got so far away from its home. At least the story has a happy ending.
  1. Washington pygmy rabbits are some very lucky bunnies.  These pocket-sized rabbits were hopping toward extinction just a few years ago.  Wildfires and farming in Washington State had destroyed most of their habitat.  Wildlife experts started breeding them in captivity.  Now the pygmy rabbits are protected and are bouncing back.
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Reading Comprehension Strategies for Non-readers

From my own experiences, what I’ve found most helpful with working with poor readers are the pre-reading strategies or preparatory work that we can do with students to really “hook” them into a piece of text.  I recently had the task of teaching a 6-7 grade class (of all non-readers and behavior problem students) about the 3 main types of volcanoes.  Rather than just get into the 2 paragraphs, I began with a website that showed them video clips and photos of different volcanoes erupting.  I know they didn’t have much background knowledge of volcanoes; I know they didn’t have good strategies for coming up with questions about a piece of reading, so I needed to give them visuals which would stimulate some ideas or connections for them.  They thought it was so cool—one student said, “you mean there’s different kinds of volcanoes?” and they were into it; they wanted to know the three types.  We read (the 1st grade level text) about the 3 main types and then looked at the pictures and video clips again to match the types with the real photos/videos.  I am certain they never would have even bothered to be interested without that “visual hook,” that thing that needed to be done to capture their interest and prepare them for the reading.  When I wanted to go back to review the three types of volcanoes the next day, I reminded them of the pictures and video clips that they saw to help them remember.

One thing I find difficult to teach to students who are poor readers is the meta-cognitive stuff about reading.  Some of them can hear themselves stumble when they read out loud when something doesn’t make sense, and they go back.  I think the RAP (read, ask what’s important, put it in your own words) strategy will work well for that too.  This strategy has helped me teach them the idea of paraphrasing—so if they can paraphrase what they read then I can be reasonably sure they are understanding and monitoring their understanding.

Questioning during reading is something I’ve become very practiced at.  My students have become very good at answering my “how” and “why” questions.  I want to show them how they can find the answers to the different kinds of questions.  Break questions down into “in the book” and “in my head” questions.  In my classroom we keep a list of questions everyone asks as we read.  For example, when we were reading The Iliad, some of the questions my students came up with were “Will Paris die?”; “Will Achilles die?”; “Who was good and who was bad?”; “Why was Paris called a coward?”; “who will win the war?”  Then I can work with them further on how to better discover the answers to the questions—will we find the answer in the book or will we have to think about it?  Then I can ask them, “will we need information from the story to think about it or can we answer it without the book?”  I want to be able to get them to a point where they can generate questions for each other without my prompting.  Learning to distinguish between kinds of questions will help them in their other subject areas too. Teaching them to think about reading isn’t just teaching them to think about reading—it’s teaching them to think about the world.  I always love when one or more of them say, “ok, so now Dawn is going to ask us how this character is like a real person and what advice would we give them if we met them blah blah blah,” and they do it with a bit of exasperation and sarcasm because I always ask it and they are so sick of hearing it, but they do it– and I’ve made them think about things in the world that are different from what they are used to.

One thing we are fortunate enough to be able to do in a small, alternative setting is to help generalize reading strategies through the other subject areas.  Students at ONTOP take different classes every day (like they would in a mainstream high school). But one of our goals is to focus on literacy—get them to read and think at higher levels than they do now so they won’t feel so intimidated in a high school class.  When teachers teach a reading strategy or a vocabulary strategy then the other teachers in the building will also model and use that strategy in their subject area.  There are only 6 teachers, so it’s easy to collaborate and we have support for each other—it makes it easy to give the students as much exposure to strategies as possible.  This is one of the main things that helps our students learn to read and comprehend more quickly.  We don’t need all those reading accommodations that the students needed in mainstream education because we use text that they can read and have the time to teach them strategies and expose them across subject areas—you just can’t get that kind of package deal in a mainstream high school classroom where the goal is to get through the curriculum rather than teach the student how to read.  Learning and practicing strategies for reading helps the students gain confidence and self-esteem which will make sitting in a mainstream high school class less intimidating.  A couple of years ago I had a student say to me, “you tricked me into liking reading.”  He became the first in his family to graduate from high school.

Reading Disabilities and Their Relationship to Behavior Issues

Fluency, vocabulary, background information, awareness of text structure, and self-monitoring (for application of strategies) are the things a reader needs.  A further understanding of the structure of the genre and sentence/discourse patterns is helpful as well.   Comprehension is an ongoing process; a process that changes with the individual and the situation.  It is also something that can be improved with instruction.  It is easier to understand comprehension as a whole process when it is explained in relation to three areas:  the text, the person and the situation.

A person brings different ideas and understanding to a piece of text.  His or her background knowledge, knowledge of vocabulary, and personal experience with the type of genre are all important to understanding the text.  When you have students, like I do, who have been out of the classroom through a lot of their school experience because of behavior, then you have students who don’t bring a lot of background knowledge to a text.  Further, when they come from homes where reading is not valued then their knowledge of vocabulary and experience with reading different genres is severely limited.   Clearly these types of students have a long way to go to comprehend different kinds of texts.  But this is only a small part of the issue with these students.

The text itself has a direct relation to how well a person will comprehend it.  It may be written with lofty or discombobulated discourse.  It might have difficult sentence structure, or the content itself might be something difficult to understand.  Working with students to learn the style and structure of different kinds of texts can help them overcome problems with difficult discourse and sentence structure.  Further, teaching them strategies for how to navigate through different kinds of expository text will be beneficial.   But this will only help the students who come from homes where education is valued.

The situation in which a reader must comprehend his or her text is a final big factor in comprehension.  Thinking about what goals, you the teacher, have for the reading, what the learning activities are and the whole context of the situation will make a difference to the reader.  Is the student reading for a standardized test?  Is the student reading to gain background information?  Is he or she reading to find the answer to certain questions?  Thinking about comprehension beyond “the reader” will help a reader utilize the situation and the text in the best way for understanding, and it will help the teacher be able to guide the students better.  But, again, students who don’t value education or see the importance of it will gain nothing even from the best teachers.

Comprehension is more than just what the student brings to a text.  At the same time, I began to get frustrated and angry about the content of the chapters.  It is so simple, so straightforward— but only for students who come from homes where education is important.  All these ideas and practices mean nothing to students who have a jaded view of reading (and school) because of years of difficulty.  There is another barrier to comprehension for these students, and these students are the ones who need the most intense instruction.  They aren’t going to learn anything from teachers they don’t value.

Many students I work with began their reading instruction way behind most other students simply because of their home environments where reading and education weren’t valued—this would have been noticeable even in Kindergarten.  Then, because these students kept falling behind their peers, they developed behavior issues to avoid reading altogether—this would have been noticeable even in first grade.  Then as elementary school progressed it was easier to be kicked out of school and fail than to learn to read—and it was easier for teachers to have them out than to discover the true reason for the behavior.  Sometimes the baggage teachers carry, their prejudices about socio-economic status or family names, may be the worst thing of all about why so many students fail to learn to read and eventually become significant behavior problems.

It is a story told every year in the files I read of most of my students; a student is identified with a behavioral disability in first grade, then years later (fourth or fifth or even sixth grade) they are found to have a reading disability; but there was always a history of reading problems from the “get-go”–a reading disability, misdiagnosed (or missed altogether) in favor of labeling the child “emotionally disabled.”  Dealing with the behavior became the priority rather than teaching the child to read.   My work with these students to teach them to read and comprehend involves breaking down the “walls” that have been built after years of failure in school.

Students who come from a background where education and reading are not valued, who come from a background of aggressive problem-solving or other types of abuse, who come from a background where getting the next meal is more important than being in school—those types of students must feel successful in school and valued by others in order to become better readers and better able to see the value of learning to read, the value of education as a whole.  If we, as teachers, don’t connect to our students and work with the “whole” child, then we will never teach them to read—why would they even care to learn if no one bothers to understand them?  Most teachers I’ve worked with in public schools find it easier to remove a problem child than to work with him or her.  These are the children who need the most attention—the others will learn to read without much of our help.  It’s those problem children who need our attention—before they reach middle school and high school–before they become so jaded to education that their only future is on the streets or in jail.   Without really knowing a student, without bothering to care about his or her situation, all the comprehension work in the universe isn’t going to make a bit of difference.

ELL:  Equity and Excellence and the Common Core

When teachers work with a population of students (be they low SES, new Americans etc…) they need to have cultural sensitivity and they need to understand where the child comes from and how that affects how they learn.  The teacher is one of the most important factors to helping kids become more literate.   It is also important to remember that teaching a child is not just the job of the teacher; the parents and the community need to be part of the equation as well.  It’s like a tri-pod:  one leg is the parent, one is the teacher, and one is the community–the student is the “camera” on top being supported by the three legs.  If everyone is working together then a child is being educated better and will become more literate.

In our school district we have partnered with a neighboring district and the two school communities to help bring equity and excellence to our schools (www.partnershipvt.org).  The goal is to create equitable curriculum and education practices that take cultural backgrounds into account and prepare Americans and New Americans for high school graduation and beyond.  Further, teachers are trained in equity where we talk about issues related to diversity and tolerance, and we are given training in biases in order to better understand them, so that all students can feel safe and respected, and so that we, as teachers, can provide a bias-free classroom.  Historically there have been huge bullying issues among students of different races, backgrounds, and cultures, and there has been discrimination toward students by teachers; those problems are not completely gone now, but teachers have been trained to address it–not ignore it or think its “normal.”  When there is a general feeling of safety in a school then kids are more able to attend to their learning.  You can be the best teacher in the world, but if your classroom isn’t a “safe” space, then the anxiety a student feels will block him/her from being the best learner they can be.

Neuman, Copple, and Bredekamp state that very early in life: “Children learn to use symbols, combining their oral language, pictures, print, and play into a coherent mixed medium and creating and communicating meanings in a variety of ways.”   What we need to remember is that a child can be literate in their native language and we should be measuring their progress in reading and writing in that native language.  An ELL child should be immersed in English, but we shouldn’t test their literacy in it until they’ve had several years of instruction and immersion in it.  Literacy is extremely important and being literate in the language of the country you live in is beneficial, but remember that individual students need to feel safe and respected and teachers need to treat students equitably and they need to be properly trained to work with students from different cultures and backgrounds.

Common Core and Special Education

I refer to the Common Core Standards quite frequently with my students to show them exactly why they do the activities I have them do.  I also do progress reports for students bi-weekly (since we have parent-teacher meetings every two weeks) so parents can get feedback about how their child is progressing and I am able to show parents the standards.  My students are all on IEP’s so I also have to keep track of reading comprehension goals that they have; at my school we (the teachers) have worked on developing reading comprehension goals that are realistic but that also support Common Core standards.

Helping my students meet standards is difficult.  Many of them have reading levels significantly below grade level (4th or 5th grade on average with some students at 1st and 2nd grade).  Having them meet high school standards (or middle school standards for those in middle school) can be significantly daunting.  If we didn’t have one-size-fits-all expectations then students could show that they are progressing.  For example, if a student can choose details from a text at their instructional level which support his/her thinking then that, to me, is just as good as being able to do that from a text at his/her grade level.  The student has shown me that she can do the skill so has met the standard.  Working with the student to help increase their reading level is still a good idea, but it’s not realistic to think that a student who reads at the 2nd grade level in 10th grade is ever going to read 10th grade material–not without significant intervention that takes away time needed for learning other school subjects.  By the time a student is in high school he or she has learned many accommodations for reading and writing.  Many teachers use audio books or audio formats to reach these students because a student can show comprehension and understanding without having to read a 10th grade text (for example), and students can dictate into software like Dragon in order to get their thinking across in writing.   Students can be thinkers and can participate in discussions without being “literate” according to the Common Core.

Using Edmodo for Peer Collaboration

Edmodo is a great resource for teachers who want to provide a safe, structured, and fun way to incorporate online learning into their classes.  Using Edmodo, a teacher sets up a “class” and is provided a private code that a user must enter in order to access it. When students enter the code to gain access, they set up their profiles and choose an avatar to represent themselves.  They can make and reply to posts, which is similar to how it happens on Facebook; however, the class is private, so no one “random” can just pop in.  The teacher can set up assignments, provide links to videos, websites, articles, word documents, pictures, etc.  The teacher can also set up a library of resources that the students can access.  Online assignments can be “turned in” and graded online.  Edmodo is a good resource for flipping the classroom:  a teacher can link a video for the students to watch at home so that class time can be devoted to problem-solving or projects.  Edmodo is also a good resource for students who miss class:  a teacher can link make-up assignments or provide links for homework; it could also be used when the school is closed for a snow day in order to access learning.  Currently we have a teacher at our school who is using Edmodo as a way to provide an online class to a student who has such significant anxiety that he can’t leave his house.  Over the summer, I created a presentation that uses Edmodo as a way for students to collaborate on a reading assignment, and I will link parts of it in this post.

Cornell University provides some important insight about collaboration and collaborative learning and why it is so important:

“Collaborative learning can occur peer-to-peer or in larger groups. Peer learning, or peer instruction, is a type of collaborative learning that involves students working in pairs or small groups to discuss concepts, or find solutions to problems. This often occurs in a class session after students are introduced to course material through readings or videos before class, and/or through instructor lectures. Similar to the idea that two or three heads are better than one, many instructors have found that through peer instruction, students teach each other by addressing misunderstandings and clarifying misconceptions.”

Research shows that educational experiences that are active, social, contextual, engaging, and student-owned lead to deeper learning. The benefits of collaborative learning include:

  • Development of higher-level thinking, oral communication, self-management, and leadership skills.
  • Promotion of student-teacher interaction.
  • Increase in student retention, self-esteem, and responsibility.
  • Exposure to and an increase in understanding of diverse perspectives.
  • Preparation for real life social and employment situations.

Here is a lesson I developed that involves students collaborating on a class project (I have classes of 5 or 6, but a larger class could be divided up into small groups for this project): Collaborative Approach Activity Lesson Plan

The following is from “Using Collaborative Strategic Reading” by Janette K. Klingner and Sharon Vaughn:

  • “Once students have developed proficiency applying comprehension strategies through teacher-led activities, they are ready to learn roles they will perform while using Collaborative Strategic Reading (CSR) in their peer-led cooperative learning groups.
  • Student roles are an important aspect of CSR because cooperative learning seems to work best when all group members have been assigned a meaningful task.
  • Some roles you can use: leader, announcer, time keeper, summarizer, visualizer, encourager, and reporter
  • The teacher becomes an active listener (or participant online) while helping with any questions or issues that come up for students; the students learn from each other
  • CSR can be used in general education classrooms where students with special needs are included for instruction (Klingner et al., in press) as well as in special education settings (Klingner & Vaughn, 1996).

downloadIn case you aren’t familiar with Edmodo, here is a handout I created that explains some of the main features of Edmodo: Edmodo Handout.

To use Edmodo for a reading collaboration activity you need:

  • personal tablets or laptops with internet connectivity or a computer with internet connectivity.
  • The Edmodo app installed on each personal tablet or access to the website.
  • A personal Edmodo account (email is not needed for students to set up accounts).

The activity could be something like this:

  1. Read for a few minutes, then answer a comprehension question on the site (the reading and questions are linked on the site for the students to access).
  2. The next step would be to continue reading for several more minutes and respond to at least 2 other people in the class via posts and replies. 
  3. Then, the group would finish the story and post their answers to the end questions. 
  4. The final step is to respond to at least 3 other learners in the class and answer any questions posed.  Then complete an assignment that is based on the reading.  The whole activity could probably take about 50-60 minutes, depending on your readers.  Here is an example of how you could set up your group collaboration reading (I used the story, “The Ransom of Red Chief,” always a favorite): Ransom of Red Chief Story and Questions