Tag Archives: teaching

Advice I Didn’t Get

As always during the summer, I am reading teaching books. I fondly imagine that they will make me a better teacher, and sometimes they do. I get lots of good ideas and deeper understandings of old ones, and apply them to my teaching. Most of the time I learn and apply what I read, making changes to accommodate my personal teaching situation. But, and it is a big BUT, there is one thing I am continually frustrated over, No one seems to address the difficulty of conferring with large numbers of middle school students. They talk about high school and elementary school, but their books seem to concern themselves with numbers below 40 and ages twelve to fourteen.

I teach in a school district in California with an average of 40 students per class. In my Honors classes it has been up to 48. How do you confer with that many students during Independent reading time, or writing, time effectively? Everybody stops reading or writing to listen, and looks shocked when they get asked a different question. If it’s the same question the answers immediately lose their individuality. To say nothing of the time it takes to confer with that many students over a week, or two, or three! Yes, I have read Atwell, Steineke, Daniels, Burke, and may others, The book that has prompted this blog is called Not This But That: No more Independent Reading TIme WIthout Support. On page 34 of the book the writer states, “You’ll learn how to confer with larger number of students in Section 3.” I turned to Section 3 (page 59) with excitement only to find absolutely no reference at all to conferring with large numbers of students. I was furious! Partly because before referring me to Section 3 the writer had shared how they had tried conferring with middle school students in a thirty minute Independent reading period on a fifty minute class period. This is exactly  my situation except that I have 42 students compared to the writer’s thirty-five. The writer found it “impossible” to meet with more than two students in that time, a situation I completely understand from my own experience.  I will keep trying, and looking for more advice from authors such as Penny Kittle and writers on the internet. I do not mean to suggest that this is the only book I have read that has bothered me this way. I just have not found an answer to the question as yet, although I keep looking and experimenting.

By all means share your experience and advice with me. I am always willing to learn, even if it is learning that others have had my same failures. I plan to continue to find ways to confer with my students, and have even had some successes talking to them as they come into the room, while they settle down to read, and while I walk around monitoring. If this is conferring I am doing okay, but I can’t help feeling there is more to it. Maybe it is up to me and the kids I teach, the responses they give me,  and what I do with those responses.

So, back to my reading and learning. The next book on my list is The Writing Thief an appropriate title as my teaching is full of stolen ideas!

Training for the Common Core

I am getting ready to go back to school, and although I have been teaching for 28 years I am almost as excited as I was in the first five years of my career. I’m lucky because I am one of those people for whom teaching and learning is a passion, and I lasted through the five years it took to become reasonably confident in what I do. The first two days of my new school year are set aside for Staff Development, and I am assuming that this means there will be time set aside for training in the Common Core. I’m not sure what that training will be but I am sure that it will have something to do with making small group work oart of our teaching.

The Orange County Register has issued two days of information and opinion about the Common Core and the start of the new school year. I am most interested in their article about teacher training.  I am cautiously excited to see what there will be for me to learn in our two days of Staff DEvelopment. I say “cautiously” because it is hard to stay excited after many years of disappointment. My district will roll out a “new” program, and then not follow through on the training. One day of training is not enough,, and that is the most we get. Here’s hoping that in this “new era” things will be different. Yes, the County Department of Education has offered opportunities for teachers to attend training session on the Common Core, but have left it “up to teachers to attend.” That’s all very well, but it says nothing about continued training. At least my district has made an effort to provide us with an introduction to the elements of the Common Core that took place throughout the last school year. I am hoping that they continue to do so.

I spent the summer reading books about teaching kids to work together and feel renewed hope that I will do a better job this year. In the past I have been guilty of making assumptions about their abilities and just throwing them together to work. Now I know that I need to deliberately and explicitly teach the social skills my kids need to help them be successful.Helping students to work purposefully in pairs, small groups and as a class is an integral part of the Common Core, and I look forward to learning as much as my students do. At least now I have a better understanding of how to structure conversations so that kids can learn from their talk.

I know that one of my two days of training will be in “academic conversations” (yes, there is a book of the same title), and I know I will be learning something new and helpful in that session. My criteria for a successful workshop is that I will learn something I can use tomorrow in my classroom. I approach training with the attitude that I will learn something, and I usually do. I’ll let you know how it goes!






What about the Common Core?

Is Adoption of Common Core a Mistake?

I have so much to say about the Common Core Standards it is hard to know where to start! There is certainly a “ruckus” being caused by this latest swing of the pendulum, which I find amusing. Having been a teacher for 27 years I have seen the pendulum swing before and it always causes an upset.

The Common Core standards have both positive and negative aspects, but on the whole they have to be better than the multiple-choice tests from No Child Left Behind. After all, there are no multiple-choice tests in real life. On the down side, the Common Core Standards have gaps. Looking at the specific standards from grade to grade, there are gaps and a lack of continuity. For example, the use of repetition in poetry is introduced in 7th grade, and never mentioned again. Is one to assume that teachers will automatically teach it again, or that it has not been introduced in earlier grades? Confusing to say the least. On the positive side, the Listening and Speaking standards are much clearer and more delineated than before, so that I have a good idea of what my kids will need to help them be successful.

The thing I like the most about the standards document is its emphasis on the ability and knowledge of the teacher. As this example from the Initiative for the Common Core State Standards says,

“Fact: The best understanding of what works in the classroom comes from the teachers who are in them. That’s why these standards will establish what students need to learn, but they will not dictate how teachers should teach. Instead, schools and teachers will decide how best to help students reach the standards.”

It is a positive message that gives teachers credit for knowing what they are doing, and having strategies that will help their kids succeed. Now if only the administration of the various districts would believe it! It does not help me as a teacher to be given a lesson to teach without training in the strategies I might use to teach the curriculum. Although I am an experienced teacher, I will be working hard this summer to re-learn and apply strategies to help students work collaboratively. Instead of giving me pre-packaged lessons I should be given planning time with colleagues, and instruction in strategies I might not know that can help me in the classroom. I know that some districts are allowing teachers at the same grade level to work together to create curriculum for the standards and this is what I think would be most meaningful.

I like the emphasis the standards places on analytical thinking and writing. Notice the use of word “analytical” as opposed to “critical” thinking. I recently heard or read (although I cannot remember from where), that the use of critical thinking emphasis in teaching essentially made no difference to final assessment of students. The common core standards is based on the old paradigm of reading where the text is key, contrary to later thinking about reading where understanding results from an interaction between the reader and the text. I understand that there was some thinking among those who wrote the standards that teachers were moving too far away from the text when allowing students to “make connections” between the text and their lives. I can understand the concern, but to say that reading is nothing more than what is in the text is an unacceptable dismissal of all we have learned about reading. As a reading specialist myself, I will continue to make sure that my students have a meaningful interactive understanding of text I use. Certainly I will make sure that “text-dependent” questioning does not mean only asking for literal level thinking.

Something else I like about the Common Core Standards is their focus on writing in terms of using short answer responses, because it includes a number of different skills and purposes. In teaching kids this kind of writing I can ask for differing grammatical structures, the use of formal academic writing, complete and polished sentences, appropriate vocabulary, and a number of other skills. The hardest aspect of writing for students is that it is not speaking. Although we talk about “voice” this does not mean the kind of language you would use in conversation with a friend. Academic writing requires the use of specialized vocabulary and sentence structures, and this is what is hard to teach to 8th graders!  Still, I like the emphasis on short answer responses as it can do a number of things for me the teacher. When I have a student write about what they are learning it is easier to see what they actually understand and where I need to fill in gaps. Of course, this is easier said than done with the numbers I deal with every day. Reading 200 exit slips every day is not really feasible. Finding a way to read all the writing that will be generated by students is yet another thing to ponder over the summer break.

In an editorial in the Los Angeles Times (June 17, 2013 – Was adopting Common Core a mistake?), the writer says, “…there are valid concerns about mandates to reduce the amount of fiction read in English classes.” The Common Core does require more reading of nonfiction but this reading is supposed to be spread among the differing subject areas, for example reading of primary documents in Social Studies. As a literature teacher I can see how to use nonfiction to support my reading of literature, using it to connect to theme, subject, events. This does not mean I will reduce my literature content, as this is the actual content of English classes. Literature is the content of English classes because Literature provides both mirrors and windows for our students, allowing them to learn how to live and grow. I will use more nonfiction in my classroom with the common core, but not at the expense of literature.

I hope that the Common Core will benefit my students. It will take time, training and hard work, but as I am committed to improving the learning of my students I will do my best to use the Common Core in the best ways I can for their benefit.