Whether you are acing common core shifts or cursing them, there are resolutions to be made by all of us as we head seven years deep into the post-common core era. Find a leverage point in the New Year and give yourself time to build toward success. Try these common core “shifter” resolutions on for size and transform learning ahead for your students.
Rookie Shifter Resolutions
Resolution #1: Even if you’re not implementing a “workshop” model or haven’t made any of the significant common core shifts yet, start small with interactive read aloud. To make this resolution a reality, first choose a text. Select an excerpt of the whole class novel or choose a picture book, poem, article, or primary source. Preview the reading or build background knowledge to help students access the topic or theme. As you read, model effective prosody, or the ways in which your rhythm and intonation support your comprehension. You’ll need to think aloud about this to help students track your prosody work. For example, after reading a piece of dialogue in a flat tone, stop to think aloud while announcing, “I’m going to give this a second read. Someone is speaking here and I notice a question mark. I know that tells me my voice should go up at the end of the sentence. Let me try.” If you come across a piece of dialogue with an exclamation point, think aloud by wondering, “How should this character sound in this line? An exclamation point could mean different emotions like shock, thrill, amazement, anticipation, urgency, or even danger. Let me think about the context here and try excitement on for size with this line.”
In addition to building topical knowledge related to the text and modeling prosody, use interactive read aloud to model ways in which you tackle tricky vocabulary. For example, think aloud about how you solve difficult words by isolating familiar ending or beginning sounds, finding word analogies, identifying recognizable root words, using context clues, and other strategies. For example, when bumping into the word “industrious,” you might think aloud the word part that reminds you of “industry.” Wonder aloud by saying, “I know industry sometimes means making things or manufacturing, so I think industrious means ‘someone who is busy producing.’” Don’t forget the importance of modeling how good readers sometimes let go of words that are not critical to comprehension. For instance, if you come to a proper noun or adjective in a clear series of synonyms, model for students how readers can ask themselves, “Do I need this tricky word to understand the sentence?” Economizing when appropriate can elevate stamina and fluency.
Finally, use interactive read aloud to talk purposefully back to the text. Pose questions like, “Hmmm…I wonder why the author used this metaphor?” Affirm important discoveries like, “I was wrong! This character wasn’t completely evil. This is a surprise!” Untangle points of confusion such as, “Wow, I need to read this again. I feel lost in this paragraph. Let me try line by line.” Hold on to important information mined from the text by asserting, “This seems important. I need to capture this information on a sticky note that I can leave in the text. In this way, I’ll know to think about this carefully again later and I’ll remember exactly where it occurred in the text.” You can engage students in these conversations with the text during interactive read aloud. Invite them to challenge your thinking, point out supporting evidence, make an inference, or notice something important in the text.
As you do this work aloud, remind students that you want them to have these same conversations in their minds and in their texts when they read independently. Use interactive read aloud to show how good readers are metacognitive and alert for clues left by the author.
Resolution #2: Do you spend the majority of time in whole class discussion of a text or review of math problems? Release the cognition to students in your whole class text or math problem set. Resist the urge to always be the tour guide for the chapter, word problem, or discussion of a primary source document. Spend no more than 5-10 minutes previewing the problem, reading the first paragraph, or modeling a strategy for tackling a tricky text. Then open the gate for students to shoulder the heavy lifting themselves. Opening the gate doesn’t mean a free for all. Line the path with a simple, meaningful task that helps students analyze, infer, or synthesize through reading, writing, talking, solving, drawing, or other output. Tasks might be as simple as finding three key pieces of evidence to support a particular claim or as complex as constructing a model to demonstrate mathematical thinking. Students can tackle tasks independently, in pairs, or in small groups. The key is to let the students do most of the work. Independence-killers include overly complex roles or directions for students to follow (e.g., literature circles that demand a note-taker, time-keeper, page-turner, etc. or graphic organizers that involve many elaborate kingdoms of bubbles and boxes unlikely to be transferred independently to other experiences). Provide students room to grapple productively within the task by letting them develop a theory, shape a model, rewrite an alternate ending, or imagine they were tweeting in response to an inaugural speech with only 140 characters to reign in all their thoughts.
Resolution #3: Have you become the sentinel regulating what students read and how they demonstrate knowledge of the texts you selected? Resolve to provide student choice for building and demonstrating knowledge through text as often as possible. Offer a set of short texts to complement the theme or topic of your whole-class reads. These texts may be articles, poems, song lyrics, images, excerpts from chapters, tables, maps, or more, read during an independent reading time. Ask students to “collect” a set of three-five of these short texts to build their schema around ideas from the main whole-class text. For example, if you are reading To Kill a Mockingbird as a class, create “schema baskets” with teacher-selected short texts dedicated to racism, The Great Depression, growing up in the South before the civil rights movement, characters struggling with identity, and characters that are inanimate objects. Allow students to select from one or more schema baskets to create their custom text set. Pose questions that drive students into these manuscripts to analyze, infer, and build theories across multiple texts. Use a “find four” grid (simple four-quadrant chart) in which students find four other students with distinct texts. Each of the four student responses to a class question, based on their individual text collection, gets recorded in one of the quadrants. This allows the class to consider how knowledge from various texts shapes classmate thinking about a shared exploration. Alternatively, during a whole class discussion of To Kill a Mockingbird ask, “Can a house can be a character? Do texts have characters like this? What evidence can shape our thinking?” Host a Socratic dialogue in which students derive their answers to these questions using their unique text collections.
There will be great diversity in student response based on their text choices but richness, debate, and rigor will hum from these conversations. Make your work easier by mining schema-basket texts sets from open source “expert packs” at Achieve the Core. Warning: This may feel a lot like chaos at first! Don’t give up. Model your own thinking using multiple, diverse sets. Take comfort in the counsel of Lord Petyr Baelish, “Chaos isn’t a pit. Chaos is a ladder.” (Game of Thrones, 2013, Episode 26)
Resolutions for the Shift Maven
Resolution #4: Are your students spending lots of time filling in the boxes of your graphic organizers, only to transpose the content of these boxes verbatim to construct their writing? Are your students falling down on standardized tests when your carefully fashioned graphic organizers are unavailable? Resolve to let go of graphic organizers as we know them. Trade your elaborate GOs for DIY versions that students can create (and recreate!) at will during authentic and on-demand tasks. These DIY versions can include simple T-charts, Venn diagrams, four-quadrant charts, if-then bubbles, and boxes and bullets, among many other easy-to-create tools for holding and manipulating information. This resolution sounds too simple to be impactful, but here’s why you should commit:
- Not all students need GOs. Even students that benefit from them once in a while do not need them all the time.
- Readers and writers in the “real world” do not typically carry around an arsenal of extravagant GOs in which they do their work. They learn organic strategies for organizing their thinking.
- Like any tool, students should learn to be in charge of selecting a GO to match their purpose. This is a critical element of metacognition (What do I need to do this work? How can a tool help me do this work more efficiently?)
- Most of the GOs we build dependency on in the classroom are not permitted in standardized test environments.
Resolution #5: Are some of your students struggling to the point of frustration with complex text? Are you trying to balance release of cognition with scaffolding and support, especially for ELLs and students with specialized learning needs? Resolve to support students with personalized learning through small-group instruction regularly. Here are a few ways to push further into small-group learning, or launch it if this format is new to you:
- Schedule a rotation of small groups across the week. Plan to meet with groups of students demonstrating multiple needs or struggling with grade-level work multiple times during the week. For example, if groups A and B include students with significant needs, meet with them on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday each week. Students finding success with grade level content can meet with you less frequently. No, you cannot meet with every group every day! Your sanity matters in 2017.
- Meet with each group for just 10-20 minutes at a time. This will prompt you to focus on a clear teaching point and still provide time for you to support each and every member of the small group. Most importantly, it conserves time to schedule one or more groups during the class time, ensuring you see approximately ten groups per week on average. If you have the luxury of a flexible schedule or a long block, of course you can schedule more. Caution: Do not overload yourself with too many groups! Small-group instruction is just as challenging as whole-class instruction.
- If you’re new to small-group instruction, start with just one group per day and ramp up slowly across the New Year. If you’re experienced, try adding one-three groups across the week at first. If you’re already a pro meeting with all students at some point in a rotation, try developing a personalized learning plan for each student. Spend time mapping long-term goals for students and, if age-appropriate, engage them in the decision-making. Tie these goals directly to the common core standards. For example, some of your advanced students may identify goals around RL.7 in which readers work across visual (e.g., illustrations) and print elements within a text to consider how each supports meaning for the other (elementary level), compare and contrast various versions of a text using film, audio, or other adaptations (middle level), or analyze representation of a key textual figure portrayed in various artistic mediums (high school). Students working toward proficiency may identify goals that gradually amplify the tasks they can engage in to support claims with evidence using grade-level text. The key is to differentiate the tasks, not the texts, to ensure common core aligned work in small group instruction during core classes. For some students, that may mean digesting only small bits of text at a time or focusing on explicit work within small chunks of text (e.g., looking at a syntax pattern) in pursuit of their long-term goals. Use intervention time to address critical needs that may require lower text levels (e.g., phonics instruction).
- Keep your small groups small! A maximum of three-six students allows you wide impact across a week but also ensures you are grouping like-needs together. If your groups are too large, the range of needs will also be too expansive.
Resolution #6: Are your students struggling with stamina across complex or lengthy texts? Fluency is one critical piece of the puzzle impacting every reader’s comprehension in grade-level or stretch texts. Resolve to add a five to ten-minute fluency booster each day. Here are several easy ways to bring this resolution to life in your classroom:
Choral Reading: The teacher reads aloud at a moderate pace, and the students read-aloud, following along and matching pacing and phrasing as best they can. Younger students should follow along with a finger or other marker to track the print as they read. At the end of the passage or series of pages, converse about what was read to let students know comprehension is the goal of fluent reading.
Older students may balk at this protocol if they are unaccustomed to reading out loud together. Stick with it. Fluency is integral to advancing comprehension, especially for struggling readers. It’s okay to let your readers know they won’t always be able to keep up or match your expression. Let them know the act of pushing themselves and hearing others develop fluency is helping them all along the way.
Cloze Reading: Photocopy a passage from a text and white out every 5th word (approximately) in a section or on the whole page (depending on the amount of print). Draw a line in the whited-out spaces to indicate a missing word. For the very first time you use this protocol, model the way you predict the deleted words as you read fluently. Provide the doctored passage to pairs of students. Have the student pairs read the passage out loud together and predict deleted words as they read. If students disagree on the missing word, they can stop and discuss the strategy or kinds of information they used to make the prediction. If they agree, they should continue on without stopping. You can reveal the words you deleted at the close of the protocol by projecting a clean copy or reading the passage aloud if you choose. The goal of cloze reading is the cognitive strategy work rather than always having the correct answer.
Cloze Reading with Initial Sounds: This protocol is the same as the cloze reading routine described above except when you white out words in the passage, leave the initial letter in the word or a cluster of letters. In this way, students become more conscious of how they attend to visual clues in relation to meaning and structure. Model the way you predict the deleted words based on visual cues you can see.
Partner Reading: Pair students strategically by matching strong readers with evolving readers and provide a short piece of text or section of text that has already been read (either together as a class, in a group, or independently). Provide color-coded stickies or popsicle sticks to each partner so that you can instruct one color to read first (e.g., “If you have a pink sticky, kick off the reading in your pair.”). Ideally, the stronger reader reads first to model prosody effectively. Model or instruct how you want partners to navigate the text. For example, does the first partner read a sentence and then stop to allow the second partner to read the same sentence? Do they stop after the first paragraph? Page? Be clear about your expectations. Each partner reads the same short section, one after the other. Students can provide their partner with support if they stumble on words or have trouble with phrasing. Feel free to mix up pairs and swap the order of who reads first. It’s okay if the strong reader is second some of the time. Avoiding any stigmatization of reading ability will be important for reader confidence, especially at upper elementary, middle, and high school grades.
Readers’ Theater: Pair or group students and provide an unrehearsed text with plenty of dialogue. Each student in the pair or group takes on a role. The part of “narrator” can be a role for sections that are not dialogue. Students dramatize the reading to emphasize expression, tone, and pacing as they read. If the text is an excerpt from a long work, students focus on punctuation, context, and other clues to help them navigate the drama, as they may not be familiar with characters or plot. For short texts, they use the full range of comprehension strategies to get the drama just right. Any text with dialogue can be used as a Readers’ Theater “script.” Alternatively, there are many free Readers’ Theater scripts written expressly for this purpose and available online. Browse the K-12 collections of other Readers’ Theater enthusiasts for scripts:
Remember, for each of the protocol, the goal is fluency and the timeframe is five-ten minutes each day. Don’t fall into the trap of turning Readers’ Theater into a two-week Shakespearean production involving costume-weaving and ten gallons of paint. Guard against choral reading that morphs into round-robin reading of your whole-class novel. Keep it short and simple and student fluency will improve dramatically over the course of the New Year.
Resolutions for School Leaders and Coaches
Should literacy leaders and principals have shift resolutions as well? Of course! The challenge of the leader in the era of common core shifts is that you are one and the standards are many. It would be impossible to think a leader could know all the standards and advise on all the pathways to lead teachers and students toward these standards. For leaders, resolve not to fix the alignment, but to ask the right questions so that you can prompt the subject-matter experts to light the way. Here are several questions you can resolve to ask regularly as you observe teaching and learning in your classrooms:
Resolution #7: Ask, “How does this task engage students in productive struggle?”
A complex text does not live out its full potential without a meaningful task. In fact, the task itself can increase the complexity of the text exponentially. For example, a task asking students to take on the role of a supporting character featured only briefly in a picture book image can amplify the complexity of a reading and writing experience. Students can rewrite the story from the supporting character’s perspective using textual tone, setting, plot, and character information as evidence to generate their stories. Alternatively, students can debate the possible versions orally in pairs or groups, using textual evidence from the original story to justify their theories.
To generate productive struggle, tasks should always be grounded in text. If teachers appear to struggle in answering this question, prompt them to think about revising tasks to emanate from one or more texts. Rather than tasks based solely on student opinion or experience (e.g., Based on our discussions, what do you think was the primary cause of the Civil War?), push teachers to think about reimagining these tasks fully grounded in text (e.g., Pick one of the authors we have read. Write a six word-summary capturing this author’s perspective on the primary cause of the Civil War.) You don’t need to identify the tasks for your teachers. You just need the words that convey, “Ground your tasks in the texts to enhance productive struggle.”
Resolution #8: Ask, “Who is doing most of the work?”
The most complex texts and tasks are not of great value if the teacher is doing most of the work. As you observe instruction, note who is doing most of the questioning? Is the teacher generating the questions? Is the teacher calling on the readers who will respond? Is the conversation path paved by what the teacher has decided is important in her lesson plan? Is every student engaged almost all of the time? Is each student doing heavy cognitive lifting of some sort?
Or are students compliantly following down a road behind an exhausted teacher with little sweat on their own brows?
Sometimes we can be lulled into a false sense of confidence by teachers who work so hard, passionately embrace their subject matter, and go to the ends of the earth to scaffold so students can “feel” successful. Unfortunately, it’s usually our accountability measures that shock us to the reality that our students are unaccustomed to doing this work independently with grade-level or stretch-level texts. Our most vulnerable students typically show the least growth, even though we’ve worked there the hardest. This question is critical: Who has been doing most of the work? Did the students facilitate the discussion using accountable talk measures modeled and released by teachers? Have students been talking to their texts using sticky notes or reading partners regularly or have they been relegated to whole class text discussions? Has student writing been formulated by a hamburger graphic or inspired by mentor authors? Who unpacked the complicated prompt with 17 directives and four unfamiliar vocabulary words?
Teachers will not follow their students to college. Bosses will not offer the weekly staff memo in seven differentiated Lexile levels. Modeling is critical, but only worthy if teachers can let students do the majority of the work.
This transition can sometimes feel subtle, especially for leaders observing content areas out of their comfort zones. Use these two tools to help you navigate the improvement effort:
- Help teacher teams revise their classroom schedules to reflect clear buckets of ownership. For example, teachers should own the smallest percentage of the period or day in what they should call the “I DO.” If the instructional block is 60 minutes, the I DO might represent no more than 15 minutes of a mini-lesson. The rest of the time should be spent releasing (WE DO) through guided practice (Let’s try this together for a few minutes!) and independent practice (YOU DO) either in small groups or as individuals. If you don’t ask to see these schedules sketched out visibly in a plan book and posted in the classroom agenda, it won’t happen.
- Use an observation tool to help teachers reflect on how time is spent in their classrooms. In the hectic lives of teachers, it is often impossible to track time ownership, reflect on who is lifting, and evaluate the quality of these ratios in the moment while managing a classroom full of students. As an observer, use the Classroom Time Analysis Tool, a web-based tool developed by the National Center on Time and Learning, to track and visually represent how time is used. The tool helps track general buckets of time use, including transitions, teacher-led time, student work time, and assessment time. Time allotments are represented with raw data (e.g., minutes) and graphically in a pie chart. The tool helps remove some of the nebulous assumptions about how we use time and focuses the conversation on how we can shift the ownership of learning to our students.
Whether you are new to the shifts or well-versed, there’s a resolution out there for you. While any of these might easily surpass the blood, sweat, and tears of a gym membership, any are sure to leave far-reaching benefits for your students.