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    Resources for World Teachers' Day

    By Alina O'Donnell
     | Oct 04, 2018

    World Teacher's DayCelebrated annually on October 5, World Teachers' Day marks not only a time to celebrate the contributions of teachers on a global scale, but also to recognize and mobilize around the challenges facing them every day.

    This year’s theme, which highlights the invaluable role of teachers in fulfilling the fundamental right to education, reminds us that we cannot realize our goal of literacy for all without teachers who come through high-quality preparation programs and are given meaningful professional learning opportunities and experiences on an ongoing basis.

    Here are five key resources for developing prepared and motivated teachers:

    • Standards for the Preparation of Literacy Professionals 2017 are the first-ever set of national standards guiding the preparation of literacy professionals. Drafted by a team of 28 literacy experts from across the United States, the updated standards describe the characteristics of effective literacy professional preparation programs, integrating research-based promising practices, professional wisdom, and feedback from expert stakeholders during public comment periods.
    • In addition to setting the standards, ILA, convened a task force charged to review and analyze the research on teacher preparation for literacy instruction. This joint effort with along with the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), produced a research advisory, that discusses common features of successful teacher prep programs.
    • Democratizing Professional Growth With Teachers: From Development to Learning reimagines a more “democratic” model of professional learning that allows educators to participate in its planning and implementation.  
    • Personalized Professional Development: At the Center of Your Own Learning,” a Literacy Daily blog post, discusses the value and practical applications of professional learning networks.
    • Teaching Tolerance provides a range of instruction, teacher leadership, school climate, and other resources that help educators shape their schools into strong, equitable communities.

    Alina O’Donnell is the communications strategist at ILA and the editor of Literacy Daily.

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    Pushing vs. Pulling Adolescent Readers Toward Comprehension

    By Colette Coleman
     | Sep 26, 2018

    Pulling Instructional ModelAs learning standards have evolved over the past decade, so too have expectations for adolescents’ reading levels and abilities. To keep up, teachers have adopted new strategies and curricula to try to meet these demands, but given the challenges that they face, student reading success has remained elusive for most. Confirming this, 2017 reading scores released by the National Assessment of Educational Progress show that only 36% of eighth graders can read at or above a Proficient level, meaning most wouldn’t be able to comprehend this post.

    Why is it that most adolescents are struggling with reading proficiency? There are countless reasons why a student would struggle with reading, but often at the core of literacy stagnation and reading reluctance is the pull reading method. In this instructional model, the teacher starts with her or his own comprehension of a text and works toward the goal of pulling students to this understanding. Although the mind-set behind this approach is well-intentioned, I believe it’s detrimental to students’ reading confidence and engagement for a few important reasons.

    First, as Edmund Wilson, the great literary journalist proclaimed, “No two persons ever read the same book.” Although there are many indisputable facts in books, the meaning that lies beneath the surface may differ from reader to reader. If a teacher pulls students toward only her or his reading, students may miss out on the chance to develop their own interpretations as they read through the lens of their own life experiences. Moreover, when a teacher conveys that students can get to an author’s meaning only through her or his hints and leading questions, the underlying message is that students can’t navigate the text on their own. Here applies the Chinese proverb “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

    The next logical question is, How does an educator teach a student to fish or, rather, close read, without pulling students toward her or his understanding of a text? The answer is the push method. This instructional strategy, recently introduced to me in an intimate literacy professional development program, the Zinc Reading Circle (ZRC), has changed the way I think about developing adolescents’ reading skills. The ZRC, led by literacy expert and veteran educator Matt Bardin, pushed me far out of my comfort zone so that I can now push my students outside of theirs toward the joy, fulfillment, and power of advanced literacy.

    In the ZRC training, I worked with just three other teachers, sharing my beliefs about reading instruction and practices, and recorded one-on-one lessons with select struggling readers. Once I overcame my discomfort of my literacy instruction being analyzed and dissected, frame by frame, I was able to reap the benefits of constructive criticism. As Atul Gawande wrote in The New Yorker on the power of coaching across sectors, from sports fields to operating rooms, the focused attention upped my reading game.

    I had it all wrong. I thought that instructing students on what I considered obvious close reading skills would be condescending but, in fact, it was the opposite. By not equipping students with the skills they need to grapple with tough texts on their own, I was sending the message that they can’t comprehend such writing without my support. Education researcher Louisa Moats’s words, “Speaking is natural; Reading and writing are not,” echoed in my head.

    To get students working toward self-sufficient comprehension, the push method demands explicit reading instruction, a strategy affirmed by countless research studies, including one notable guide, Improving Adolescent Literacy: Effective Classroom and Intervention Practices, published by the Institute of Education Sciences. There are several close reading strategies to teach, but the most crucial is visualizing. This act comes naturally to strong readers (probably you if you’re reading this) but is anything but obvious to most. While reading, it’s crucial to imagine what the author’s describing, evoking, and asking you to infer as you go. These visual representations act as hand holds for your brain to scale the mountain of challenging texts. When I taught primary school, I often asked students to close their eyes and imagine the scenes as I read aloud. This strategy worked well with my fourth graders to understand books such as The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, but to my amazement, the same principle and strategy, taught differently (no longer with read-alouds and eyes closed), is just as important for understanding texts at middle and high school levels.

    Since I’ve started to push my students more toward mastery of this skill and others, there’s no longer a need for me to pull them to comprehension. They’re leading the way to their own understanding, and to my great delight, I’m even learning new interpretations from them.

    Colette Coleman is a part-time educator and full-time educational equity advocate. A former classroom teacher, she is now focused on EdTech, writing as a contributor to EdTech news site EdSurge and working with Zinc Reading Labs.

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    The Benefits of Writing Into the Day for a Whole Year

    By Den'ja Pommarane
     | Sep 20, 2018

    Healing Through WritingDon't get me wrong. I value the importance of writing in my classroom. The work we do with students to prepare them for the next step (college or career) is paramount. We teach students to write the persuasive, the expository, the narrative. We support students with word choice, syntax, organization, ideas, and conventions. We help students patch the bleeding words, sometimes playing the role of the Civil War surgeon, lopping off paragraphs like limbs destroyed by bayonets. To me, high school writing is a high stakes game with little time for “playing” out of bounds.

    With Writing Into the Day, I felt like I was in a battle with time. Just 185 days to take my students to the next level, essential learnings and short cycles, assisting them to reach their highest potential. If I found a cool quote in a book or a moral issue that related to the lesson, then we would spend some time free writing. Otherwise, Writing Into the Day was benched; fated to ride the pine with the other third-string activities and practices that had flowed through the threshold of my mind. The notion of writing for writing’s sake, to let go and see where the mind and pen takes you, appealed to me, but I didn't know how I was going to let go of the precious and limited time I had with these students to ensure the curriculum was covered and the students met the proficiency levels of the standards.

    It wasn't until after spending the summer of 2017 with the Wyoming Writing Project that I resolved to include Writing Into the Day as a part of my classroom's daily routine. I decided I would spend the 2017–2018 school year committed to this practice with my ninth-grade English and American literature classes. Today, as I reflect on the school year, I can't deny the positive impact Writing Into the Day had on my classes.

    Writing Into the Day is an activity where students spend a slice of time (usually seven to 10 minutes) writing at the beginning of the period. Writing topics sometimes differ from the lessons and goals of the day’s curriculum. At first, I worried it was going to be a waste of time or that the students would view it as an opportunity to mess around on their phones and chat with each other. As it turns out, I had nothing to worry about.

    In the beginning, prompts were informational and low risk. For example, a prompt might ask students to write about their favorite season or their least favorite food. I found that starting with these more accessible prompts helped students build the confidence to eventually share their writing. I never mandated that students had to read aloud their work every day or that they had to adhere to the prompt. Sometimes, the prompts weren’t meaningful to them or they had something more pressing on their mind—maybe they had failed a math test the period before English or had a fight with their parents the previous night and needed time and space to process. Their Writing Into the Day might have taken a whole different direction, perhaps for the better. At times, this practice became a form of catharsis. It allowed students to explore their feelings in a safe, constructive manner.

    By the end of the year, students wrote about their personal thoughts and feelings. As the students learned more about each other and made meaningful connections, we created a classroom environment that embodied empathy, compassion, and understanding. 

    I recall many times when Writing Into the Day sparked an interest in writing outside of the classroom, but two incidents stand out in my mind. The first occurrence happened in mid-October. A student raised his hand and said he had not been writing to the prompt that day, but rather was continuing his work on a short story he started over the weekend. He asked if he could share an excerpt with the class. As he started reading aloud the murder scene, complete with blood spatter, shell casings, and red and blue lights, I watched my students slide forward and lean in on their seats. He had hooked them. Upon finishing the excerpt, the class asked for more. He refused, saying it was still a work in progress. His eyes lit up and a smile stretched across his face as his classmates groaned in disappointment. During that moment, Writing Into the Day provided an audience for my students and acted as a bellows to intensify their burning desire to write.              

    Another time, a student chose to write a poem about finals week and the end of the school year. The prompt asked students to discuss strategies they had in place to study and how to end the school year strong. She didn't share that day, but two days later, she handed me a poem. It described her brain as oatmeal and her knowledge running through her fingers like sand through a sieve. Being a freshman, she had encapsulated her feelings about finals and ending the school year in a poem that was not required for the class.

    I feel that Writing Into the Day built my credibility as a teacher, writer, and friend of my students. Too often as teachers, we compartmentalize ourselves. Students see teachers as a source of knowledge, a sort of gatekeeper to our content and a “giver” of grades and little else. Through my experience last year, I found Writing Into the Day became the great equalizer. The practice gave me an opportunity to write side-by-side with my students. When I modeled my own writing process (including the mistakes, struggles, and insecurities) and demonstrated vulnerability, I found that my students did too.

    By no means was Writing Into the Day a "magic bullet." It took practice and patience to achieve the classroom culture both students and I wanted and deserved. Reflecting on the 2017–18 school year makes me place it on the shelf with some of the greatest years I've had as an educator. I believe that Writing Into the Day played an integral part in this success.

    Den'ja Pommarane is an ELA teacher at Laramie High School in Wyoming. 

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    Who’s Doing the Work?: Letting Students Guide the Process in a Writing Workshop

    By Jennifer Bekel
     | Sep 12, 2018

    student-guided-writing-workshopWriting workshops are a common daily feature in many classrooms, including my own. However, the work used to feel robotic. Writing time was not enjoyable, students did not see themselves as authors, and their craft was not improving. The workshop was not working.

    To reinvigorate our writing workshop, I studied Katie Wood Ray’s text, The Writing Workshop: Working Through the Hard Parts (And They’re All Hard Parts) (National Council for Teachers of English). After simple adjustments and a willingness to let students lead and guide learning, our writing workshop began to work for all involved.

    Immersion in examples

    Modeling, allowing students to observe the writing process, is an important component of writing workshop. Although I modeled and cowrote with them, the students were not trying new techniques or growing in their writing. Ray is a proponent of mentor texts— quality examples of writing that spark students’ ideas about the craft and technique used to create the texts. Moving from only teacher modeling to the inclusion of great mentor texts was one of the first essential adjustments I made to my writing workshop.

    During writing time, we studied rich mentor texts and discussed the authors’ choices. Leveled texts were also shared with students to allow them to make more decisions about their writing. The availability of independent-level texts after the minilesson allowed students to study text structure and gain ideas based on personal interest and choice during independent work. Additionally, we examined samples of past student work so students could further understand quality writing at their grade level.

    After being surrounded by texts, the students were quicker to engage during writing workshop time. There were fewer conversations that began with “I don’t know what to write about,” and students explored new techniques in their writing.

    Writers don’t always write

    Recognizing not all instructional time in writing workshop needs to be spent writing is another essential adjustment to teaching. Rather than walking students through an artificial writing process, they should be given the freedom to decide what work needs to be accomplished in their writing.

    Ray describes how students learn what authors do and how to use their time accordingly. My students know during writing workshop they can look at mentor texts for ideas, finish a draft, or start something new. This empowerment improves student productivity due to the motivation students gain from making their own choices. Time on task is maximized because students need not wait for others to finish to advance to the next step.

    The students realize the value of their time during writing; although they may not be doing the same task as their peers, they all recognize they are working as authors.

    Let’s customize it

    One day during a writing conference, a student who was struggling with the mechanics of writing noticed yet another letter written incorrectly. I encouraged him to fix it. His hopeful response was, “Can’t we customize it?” This led me to another insight and adjustment to writing workshop: allowing students and their work as authors to determine the sequence of lessons and conferences.

    Instead of assigning topics or tasks for the week and following scripted lesson plans, writing instruction is designed on the basis of students' previous weekly work and where they can be guided as writers. At the end of each week, students are asked to choose and submit their best writing sample. These pieces are graded using a district-created rubric. Recognizing the need to customize, I look for trends across the writing samples. Significant areas of need, such as adding details or using transition words, become the focus of whole-group minilessons. With every lesson based on student needs, the immediate relevancy increases engagement.

    After noting where whole group instruction needs to occur, I make piles with all the papers, using the rubric to decide who needs support in areas such as word choice, conventions, organization, and so forth. Armed with a conference plan for the following week, I can meet with each student and provide targeted instruction and customized learning.

    Using this adjustment has yielded improved student rubric scores, indicating quantitatively improved writing. Further, students are more engaged during writing because the instruction is relevant to their current interests and work.

    Students are the experts

    A final adjustment in writing workshop is letting students be the experts in the room by providing sharing time and guiding questions to elicit partner feedback. In this way, students ask and answer questions about the elements of their work. The authenticity of these questions gives students ideas and inspires potential revisions.

    Further, students frequently take the role of expert writers throughout the workshop. One student, trying to think through an idea, began asking me a question. Before I could offer any suggestions, another student who was diligently illustrating her book said, “I can help with that!” Empowered to coach each other during writing time, students’ workshop productivity increases because of the immediate availability of help from their peers.

    Take action

    Implementing these adjustments in the classroom and moving to authentic, student-driven writing has improved student engagement and quality of work. As we began making these changes, one student was explaining the book series she was creating. After explaining her action plan and how she might make changes based on feedback, she said, “Then they’ll go into the world!”

    Her comment epitomizes the climate this approach to writing workshop has created. The students no longer think of writing as the completion of projects assigned by the teacher; they are invested in their work and believe in themselves as authors. Students are doing the writing work.

    Jennifer Bekel, an ILA member since 2009, has a master’s degree in education and interdisciplinary studies and a master’s in reading. She is currently a third-grade classroom teacher and EL coordinator for the North Scott Community School District in Iowa. The writing practices described in this article were originally implemented in her first-grade classroom.

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    Honoring Diversity: Resources for Your Classroom

    By Anna Osborn and Tricia Ebarvia
     | Sep 10, 2018

    honoring-diversityThe following list of resources is a supplement to “Honoring Diversity,” an article in the September/October 2018 issue of Literacy Today, ILA’s member magazine.
    It is provided by the article’s authors, Anna Osborn and Tricia Ebarvia.

    Recommended middle and high school titles for your classroom

    • Inside Out and Back Again and Listen, Slowly by Thanhhà Lại (HarperCollins)
    • Blackbird Fly and Hello, Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly (Greenwillow)
    • Fred Korematsu Speaks Up by Laura Atkins and Stan Yogi, and illustrated by Yutaka Houlette (Heyday)
    • American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang (Macmillan)
    • Flying Lessons & Other Stories by Ellen Oh (Crown)
    • To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han (Simon & Schuster)
    • When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon (Simon Pulse)
    • When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka (Anchor)
    • You Bring the Distant Near by Mitali Perkins (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
    • Warcross by Marie Lu (Penguin)

    Additional resources

    Tricia Ebarvia, a Heinemann Fellow, teaches English at Conestoga High School outside Philadelphia, PA. She is also a codirector for the Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project and an Educator Collaborative literacy consultant.

    Anna Osborn, an ILA member since 2008, is a reading specialist and National Board Certified teacher in Columbia, MO. As a member of her district’s equity team, certified by NCCJ-St. Louis as an equity facilitrainer, Osborn leads educators in difficult conversations about identity, systemic oppression, and strategies to achieve liberation. Currently, she is pursuing her PhD in literacy at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

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