Recent Posts

Friday, March 17, 2017

Mentoring, Motivating, and Making It Work!

You may know Tim Gunn as cohost and mentor of the Emmy Award-winning reality show Project Runway. What you may not know, however, is that Tim is also a best-selling author and a former professor of Parsons School of Design in New York City.

On television, we see a snazzy, self-confident professional, but Tim Gunn, like the rest of us, went through many trials to become who he is today. In a recent NPR article and podcast, Tim relates how he had to overcome a debilitating stutter and a paralyzing fear of the classroom before ever realizing his identity as a teacher.

If you haven't seen an episode of Project Runway, you’re missing out on not only great entertainment, but also some moments of master mentoring in action! You can still catch episodes of the latest competition (Season 15) on-demand. Even better, you can discover Tim’s take on teaching and mentoring for yourself in Tim Gunn: The Natty Professor; A Master Class on Mentoring, Motivating, and Making It Work.

According to Tim, good teaching can be determined by five qualities, which he has taken to calling his T.E.A.C.H. philosophy. In brief:

  • T is for Truth Telling. According to Tim, “a key role of the teacher is to inject reality into situations.”
  • E is for Empathy. Along with helping students see reality, we need to discover their individual strengths and limits. “Not everyone has the same toolkit, and so not everyone is going to make the same kind of work. It's only by paying close attention to whom the students are and putting yourself in their shoes that you can truly help them.”
  • A is for Asking. Tim admits, “The single best teaching trick I ever learned was to turn every question back on the student.”
  • C is for Cheerleading. “In the Project Runway workroom, I tell designers to “Make it work…” and I point out areas in which they are strong.”
  • H is for Hoping for the Best. “One of the hardest things for a teacher is to know when to keep quiet and when to let go... We need to have faith that we have done all we can, and then we need to kick our birds out of the nest.”

As a teacher of 25+ years, I continue to seek out methods and motivation to improve my craft, and this book is a satisfying hybrid of both conventional and unconventional schools of thought on the art and science of teaching. Until you get your own copy, here are some of Tim’s thoughts on topics that continue to challenge us all.

Tim Gunn On Good Teaching:
My goal for this book is to start a national conversation about teaching. We talk all the time about the administration of education - test scores and Common Core, classroom size and teachers’ unions - but what we don't talk about nearly enough is the single most important aspect of teaching, the key to determining whether knowledge is actually transmitted: the relationship between teacher and student. There's content and then there's methodology. The content will change, but good teaching is eternal.  (p. xi)
On the Importance of Knowing Your Students:
My view is that good teaching is all about asking questions driven by curiosity. It's about connecting with your students, not only as student but as fellow human beings. In order to give helpful and responsible instruction, you need context - as much information as you can elicit. If you don't know your students, how can you be sure that what you say will be meaningful for them?
On Having All the Answers:
I will add that asking questions of my class removed the sense of obligation I felt early in my teaching career to have all the answers on the first day. I realized over time that it was a journey we were on together. It wasn't up to me to do all the work. I came to realize that a class is a collaboration, as is life!  (p. xii)
On “Teaching Malpractice:”
Shouldn't there be an educational equivalent of the Hippocratic oath? Breaching the oath would hold you accountable for your behavior, as it would with an M.D. Teachers who save us from ignorance should be given the glory (and income!) of open heart surgeons. And yet, being such an unhappy student made me that much more grateful for those teachers who treated me with kindness and respect, or who showed me that I had value. (p. xiv)
On First Impressions:
One thing I learned in the course of my teaching career was to never judge anyone on that first day. When I started out, I was smug about having the students’ characters all figured out at first glance… But students often - I would say, usually - surprise you. As a young teacher, I misjudged so often that ultimately I stop judging all together.  (p. 7)
On the Value of Experience:
There's no substitute for experience. I have the greatest respect for new teachers - their enthusiasm, their eagerness to have a great relationship with their students and to help them learn. At the same time, veteran teachers are great beneficiaries of trial-and-error. Mistakes are so valuable, providing you learn from them. One of the worst things for a teacher is to be stubborn and rigid. (p. 8)
On High Expectations for Students:
When I began teaching, I erred on being overly kind and generous in my assessment of the students’ work. I realized by midterm that it wasn't doing them any favors. What I was really doing was lowering the bar of my expectation to where the students actually were. The trouble with that is, they'll stay there. If the teacher’s expectations are higher than what the students can achieve, they'll keep pushing themselves. It's like running a marathon alone: You can't gauge where you are and so, as I became a more seasoned teacher, I resolved to keep the bar higher. (p. 8)
On Teaching Versus Mentoring:
Teachers and mentors have a common goal: they help students grow into the people they are meant to be. And yet there is a significant difference between being a mentor and being a teacher. As a teacher, I could tell my students what I wanted them to do. As a mentor, that's inappropriate. That's the divide for me. Mentors help their mentees achieve a vision, whatever that vision is. Teachers guide their students toward certain things. Learning to be a mentor after twenty-nine years of being a teacher wasn't a snap for me the way some people assumed it would be. There was a learning curve. (p. 13)
On the Role of the Mentor:
The problem with doing the work for your mentees, or your students, is that they don't learn, yes, but also that you steamroll over their eccentricities when you should be helping them be seen. It's your job to encourage each person's uniqueness, not stamp it out. No two people need the exact same thing from you as a mentor. (p. 15) 
I never tell the Project Runway designers what fabric that should have chosen, or what they should have done with the past three hours, any more than I would tell them that they should be taller. You have to meet people where they are. The questions to keep in the forefront are: What skills do you have? What materials do you have on hand? What's the best thing you can do with them? It's my job to help the designers ask themselves those questions and come up with answers that help them along. (p. 26)
On Creating a Healthy Classroom Environment:
A warning sign to me was when I could hear teachers shouting. If you're shouting, you're in trouble. You hold the power in your two hands. If you have any moment of disbelief about that, who is giving them a grade? You are. You're in charge. You have all the power. There is no reason to raise your voice. You can be angry. You can express disappointment. But never yell. (p. 45)
On Grading and Ranking:
Grading is an important aspect of our job as truth tellers. At colleges, there are often attempts at extortion around grading, such as: “We don't want him to lose his financial aid!” I have no patience for that stuff, at all. I believe testing is democratizing… It’s not a matter of the federal government handing down a syllabus and curriculum. Does anyone feel that education in this nation is adequate? I certainly don't. If we don't have some benchmarks for proficiency, how do we know how well we are really educating people? We've been operating with a blind trust that this is as good as it gets. Well, it's not good enough. 
There's something to be said for rankings. As a competitive swimmer, the first time I came in third instead of fourth, fifth, or last was very motivating to me. Later, I came in second, and eventually one day I came in first. If you work hard, you can achieve practically anything.   (p. 66)
On Empathy:
Empathy is the capacity to understand what other people are experiencing. It's essentially the golden rule: showing others respect and trying to put yourself in their shoes. In our interactions with others, we should always be asking ourselves: "How would I react if someone said or did this to me?" Most teachers of small children are excellent at empathy, and are constantly signaling their role as safe haven, like human lighthouses. (p. 75)
On Giving In to Harassment:
In all areas of life, high maintenance people make me crazy, and I avoid them whenever I can. In my world, the squeaky wheel does not get the grease. People who give into that harassment have only themselves to blame. It's harder in the short-term, but so much easier in the long term. 
Sensitive people often talk about how other people are "triggering" them. Well, someone told me recently that my hairline is receding and I'm getting a bald spot. I didn't mind. It's true! It's a matter of fact rather than their being mean. Being mean, in my view, is teasing someone in a manner calculated to call a shame, or acting hateful because of something they can't change. But stating a fact like “Natalia, your inability to make decisions is causing a problem for us,” is not mean. That's just truth telling. (p. 94)
On Asking Questions:
Socrates figured it out thousands of years ago. Generally speaking, the best teachers are the one to ask their students the most questions. We need to make our students think. We are not mother bird dropping worms into their mouths. We are there to prod them into realizing things on their own.  
There is such thing as being overprepared for a class. You don't want to come in with all the answers. You want to make your students work. You're a guide. You're a mentor and a leader. You're not Google. I confessed to young people when I don't know the answer to something, and sometimes even when I do but want them to find out for themselves: “That’s a good question. Go find out.” (p. 131)
On Being Fully Present:
A chemistry professor wrote to me online and said that he's always believed teaching requires one thing above all others: full human presence. “One cannot pretend that the only thing that matters is the content,” he said. “If you do that you look like an idiot. Instead, one must acknowledge that teaching and learning are both deeply human endeavors that require a lot of mistakes to get right. You have to acknowledge that your students may not want to grow up to be you, and you need to support them in that.” Hear, hear. (p. 138)
On Bad Teachers:
Sometimes... bad experiences can be catalysts. You fight against it. "I won't let that be true!" I have friends who say that teachers - or bosses or in particularly tragic examples, parents, - telling them they were no good was what propelled them on to greatness. I appreciate the value of a good revenge fantasy. I had plenty of naysayers in my academic career. … They did motivate me to prove them wrong… And yet, I don't recommend trying to crush someone's dream as a good teaching strategy. For every student you push forward, how many would you scare away from the field forever?
It's funny, though: I remember teachers were nurturing and inviting and engaging. And then I remember teachers who were hugely off-putting and insulting, and then there are all those ones in between my don't remember at all. And I wonder, is it possible those nameless, faceless teachers who never made any impression at all despite our many months together are in fact the worst ones? (154)
On Differentiated Learning:
I look to students to determine what each needs in order to feel inspiration. As a teacher, I found that the best and worst student in the class were always the two most difficult groups to teach. The middle was easy. The toughest students for me were the ones who were either way ahead of the pack or who were trailing behind. But that's the challenge: to spend each day modulating lessons so that each group moves forward - helping those who are a bit behind catch up, and those who are ahead get even more ahead. (p. 166)
When I studied classical piano, which I did for twelve years, my heroes were Arthur Rubinstein, Vladimir Horowitz, and Van Cliburn. They could play the same piece so differently, even with sheet music. That's one of the most amazing things about teaching: when you see each student bring their own soul to an assignment, you see twenty different right answers. (p. 168)
On Self-Fulfilling Prophecies
One of our most important jobs as teachers is to support our students in whatever it is they want to do, even if it's not what we would do ourselves. As soon as a student enters our class, we must do everything we can to support that student and to make him or her feel believed in and appreciated. It is so depressing when teachers badmouth their students. I always hated to hear complaints in the faculty lounge about how lazy or useless a group of students was.
I work with people who would say after the first day of class, "These students are really going to be great. These other ones are going to flop." I'd say, "Really? That could be a self-fulfilling prophecy." At some point, the burden is on you as a teacher. I similarly cringe when a person complains about how all the people he or she is dating are "terrible in bed." Really? What's the common denominator among all the students and all those dates? You. Maybe you need to take some responsibility for your own experience of those other people. (p. 189)
On Letting Go:
I'd like to talk about how to let go. It can be the hardest thing in the world. Designers don't want to declare a garment done. Parents don't want their kids to leave home. mentors don't want to admit that the ultimate outcome is out of their hands, that they've done all they can and have to cross their fingers and hope it will all work out well for this person and home they've invested so much time and energy. The people we teach become repositories for our fondest hopes. And it can be hard to watch them stroll off into an uncertain future. The last thing I do in a critique is to tell the designer or student, "You're free now! Good luck!" (p. 223)
On Consistency:
One thing I find extremely important in teaching is consistency. If the paper is due on Friday, the paper is due on Friday. We need to be very explicit about what is and isn't grounds for postponing a deadline… . Any solution is fine so long as it's been arranged in advance and does not change randomly.
One easy way to infuriate a student who's worked hard to get something in on time is to then say to other students that it doesn't matter and turning it in the following week is fine. You can have almost any rules you want, but leaving deadlines and boundaries fuzzy is a recipe for disaster. Not to mention, that's not how the real world works, so what fantasy world are you preparing your students for if you don't enforce limits? (p. 226)
Hear, hear.

Thanks, Tim, for your inspiration to so many.


Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The Best Way to Motivate Students to Complete Complex Tasks

Some time ago I sat down to discuss a classroom observation with an administrator. During our discussion he remarked, “When you asked your students to take out their writing homework, I was curious to see how you'd deal with the kids who didn’t have it. I was actually shocked to see that everyone had it. That's usually not the case.”

Getting students to complete assignments is a nonnegotiable prerequisite to them being able to share their work with classmates. Assigning meaningful and motivating work is certainly half the battle, but getting students successfully started on assignments is also a key way to ensure that the work gets completed in full.

Chip Heath and Dan Heath, bestselling authors of Made to Stick, relate the following anecdote in the #1 New York Times Bestseller Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard:

A local car wash ran a promotion featuring loyalty cards. Every time customers bought a car wash, they got a stamp on their cards, and when they filled up their cards with eight stamps they got a free wash.

Another set of customers at the same car wash got a slightly different loyalty card. They needed to collect ten stamps (rather than eight) to get a free car wash but they were given a head start. When they received their cards, two stamps had already been added.

The “goal” was the same for both sets of customers: buy eight additional car washes, get a reward. But the psychology was different: In one case, you were 20 percent of the way toward a goal, and in the other case, you're starting from scratch. A few months later, only 19 percent of the eight stamp customers had earned a free wash, versus 34 percent of the head start group. And the head start group earned a free wash faster.

People find it more motivating to be partly finished with a longer journey than to be at the starting point of a shorter one… One way to motivate action, then, is to make people feel as though they're already closer to the finish line then they might have thought.

This phenomenon, in my opinion, is gold. Simply stated, the best way to get students finished is to get them well started. A key to this might be what psychologists call the Zeigarnik Effect. Have you ever done a puzzle with your kids, only to discover a missing piece? We don't shrug and walk away. Instead, we tear the house apart to find that missing piece! We seek closure now that the task is so close to completion.

Jeremy Dean of PsyBlog explains:

It’s called the Zeigarnik effect after a Russian psychologist, Bluma Zeigarnik, who noticed an odd thing while sitting in a restaurant in Vienna. The waiters seemed only to remember orders which were in the process of being served. When completed, the orders evaporated from their memory.

Zeigarnik went back to the lab to test out a theory about what was going on. She asked participants to do twenty or so simple little tasks in the lab, like solving puzzles and stringing beads (Zeigarnik, 1927). Except some of the time they were interrupted halfway through the task. Afterwards she asked them which activities they remembered doing. People were about twice as likely to remember the tasks during which they’d been interrupted than those they completed…

Procrastination bites worst when we’re faced with a large task that we’re trying to avoid starting. It might be because we don’t know how to start or even where to start.

What the Zeigarnik effect teaches is that one weapon for beating procrastination is starting somewhere…anywhere.

Don’t start with the hardest bit, try something easy first. If you can just get under way with any part of a project, then the rest will tend to follow. Once you’ve made a start, however trivial, there’s something drawing you on to the end.

In “What Is The “Zeigarnik Effect” and How Did I Apply It In The Classroom Today?” educator Larry Ferlazzo relates the following classroom experience:

One of my students does have a strong tendency toward procrastination. Today, we were completing a short “book talk” form..., and everybody was working away on it except for “John” (not his real name). He said he didn’t know what to write. The article I read about the Zeigarnik Effect immediately came to mind, and I asked him to complete the first question, which just asked for the title of the book and the author’s name. I pointed out that all he had to do was copy it from the cover of his book.

He immediately did so, and then went on to complete the entire form. Would I have made that same suggestion if I hadn’t read about Zeigarnik yesterday? Maybe, maybe not. But it has now made me more conscious of thinking about what might be easy tasks or questions that would be good ways to start challenging assignments (or to use to get students who face a variety of challenges starting on doing any assignments)….

In her Scientific American article “On writing, memory, and forgetting: Socrates and Hemingway take on Zeigarnik,” Maria Konnikova, author of Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes, states:

The Zeigarnik Effect is a powerful motivating force. And a motivated mind is a mind that is much more capable of thought and accomplishment - even if it does sometimes need to use a cheat sheet to remember just what it wanted to include, be it in a story or an order. I, for one, know that I will always prefer a waiter who writes my order down to one that remembers it—however urgently—all in his head.

So how can we use the “head start,” or Zeigarnik Effect, in our classroom to motivate students to complete even the most challenging tasks?

  • Minimally, for assignments requiring lined paper or an online doc, prompt students to set the paper up before leaving the classroom. In my own class, every paper requires a four line heading, with a precise assignment name on the fourth line. The very act of getting the paper formatted seems to guarantee that more students will have the assignment finished.
  • Purposely include more questions/problems on the assignment than you intend for students to complete. Then complete one or two together as a group to get students well started. (Bonus: this will help clear up misunderstandings about appropriate and complete responses).
  • In the case of short response formats, provide the answers to the first couple of questions. These can be printed upside down or on the side of the page. Letting students see early successes will motivate them to move on.
  • After distributing activity sheets, allow students to complete at least one example with a partner or group. (Bonus: parents appreciate when work comes home partially done, as it typically eliminates complaints of "I don't get it").
  • Allow partners to discuss answers, but not write anything, for two minutes. Then, allow students two minutes of uninterrupted writing time on their own. My students have learned to skip easier questions and instead wrestle with the more difficult questions.
  • When students are completing open-ended, longer format work, I'll use the above procedure (talk, then write) and then ask student volunteers to share just one sentence of what they've written. This reinforces for them that they're on the right course, helps other students hear what good work sounds like, and allows me, the teacher, to quickly redirect the class as a whole if responses are falling short of what we're trying to achieve.
  • Provide exemplars that clearly illustrate model approaches. These exemplars need to be readily accessible to students. Whenever possible, I archive these online so that students can access them remotely, 24/7.
  • Provide sentence stems that students can use or adapt to begin their own responses. When my students were struggling with closing sentences, for example, I equipped them with this page of Closing Sentences that used previously-studied topics from their content areas. Not only did students use these to write better sentences, but they began to pay more attention to how other texts brought closure to paragraphs.
What are your ideas for getting students off to a good start?


Saturday, March 11, 2017

Three Holocaust Resources You Can Use Tomorrow

Teaching and learning about the Holocaust, and about the society that allowed these crimes to occur, is crucial to build awareness about current episodes of hatred in our own communities. We must learn to stand up for human rights for all people. We need to act against hatred in our society before intolerance approaches the level evident during the Holocaust. As the philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.” 


Educator’s Resource Toolkit on Lessons from the Holocaust

A week rarely passes that a teacher doesn't reach out to me requesting more resources for teaching about the Holocaust, especially in connection with powerful novels such as Prisoner B-3087 or Night. With that in mind, I recommend three extremely thought-provoking yet accessible resources which you can use in your classroom tomorrow.

The first is an Educator’s Resource Toolkit on Lessons from the Holocaust created by the Center For Literacy Studies at The University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Although the entire resource weighs in at a daunting 127 pages, you'll quickly see that individual pieces of this packet can be utilized effectively in the classroom. My sixth graders were able to read and understand the text with little difficulty, needing prompting and additional help with only those terms you might expect (scapegoat, collaborator, propaganda, inevitable, etc.).

The first selection of the packet titled “Over Twelve Years of Fear” provides students with a well-organized historical context of the period from 1933 to 1945. My class uses this reading as a paired activity following a more general introduction. Students read each page together and then take notes using the Keywords Strategy. Simply explained, the Keywords Strategy requires that students select three to seven terms from the page that they feel are crucial to the reader’s understanding of that page. These three to seven terms are then used to compose a summary sentence for that page. Since the entire reading is roughly twelve pages long, you could stop frequently to either review a page as a group, or do a pairs squared check-in. I prefer individual monitoring and checking (over students’ shoulders), however, as students “in the flow” of the activity seem to prefer this to being interrupted. 

Another portion of this packet which emphasizes interaction with text is the "Sentence Structure Exercise" which begins on page B23. Students read a paragraph (which is already familiar to them in terms of content) and then dissect that paragraph, placing facts in a chart according to who, what, why, when, and where. The resulting notes in that table can then be read across horizontally to give a single-sentence summary of that passage. This activity emphasizes the note-taking strategy previously used in “Over Twelve Years of Fear,” while additionally emphasizing the need to be factually complete when writing summaries.


Are these activities time-consuming? Yes. But in my opinion, students need a strong background in this period in order to better understand any novel which they read. Teachers who need to continually stop mid-reading to provide context are doing their students, and themselves, a disservice.

Take time to look through the entire toolkit as it contains many wonderful resources for student learning across all disciplines. You will find, for example, several activities which could be incorporated into Math class. For all teachers involved, I suggest reading the Methodological Considerations from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, thoughtfully included in the packet as Appendix A.

I would additionally recommend that teachers seek out first-hand accounts of survivors and other Witnesses. One such piece is “A Factory of Death” by Jeff Jacoby, originally published at Aish.com. I copied and reformatted that particular piece to allow students to take notes more easily and engage with those notes via a subsequent class discussion. In a previous post I discussed the ways in which you can add line numbering to a Google doc; this is key to keeping everyone on the same line as classroom discussions develop.

Students were directed to read “A Factory of Death” from beginning to end, without pause. At the end of the article, students are then instructed to “Read through the article again, and annotate (comment on) the specific tools, techniques, or text features the author uses to build his argument.” For some students, this was a reflection on the corroborating facts of the article; for other students, their notes reflected an appreciation for the language which the author used, including word choice and metaphor.

When students arrived with the completed annotation in hand for our class discussion, I gave them the new instruction to underline every fact or line in the account which confirmed a fact we previously read elsewhere. This helped them see that a personal account can confirm historical records while at the same time elaborating upon them. During this short time underlining, several students added additional notes of discovery from their third reading.

As a follow-up, students read the New York Times piece “Out of Auschwitz” in order to discuss the legacy of this tragedy. If students aren’t asking, “What can we learn from this?” then we’ve likely failed them as teachers and as human beings.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Helping Students Track Complex Texts

Q: How do you keep students on track while reading long, complex texts? My students often can't recall previous events, and they're reluctant to search through dozens if not hundreds of pages to find proof for the claims they're making.

With shorter texts, readers typically rely on their memories to recall "what happened" in the text, with a fair degree of accuracy. But what happens when a text is particularly long, involved, and read over an extended period of time? How can we help students better recall and access earlier events?

I rely upon annotating the text directly, and I recommend that for online passages and shorter texts which might be legally copied. But unless your students own the books they're reading, this isn't a practical technique.

For books, I would recommend Page Titles.

The Short Game

Upon our return from winter break, we resumed reading Newbery Honor author Gary D. Schmidt's Okay for Now. I realized that students wouldn't recall details of what they had read two weeks ago, so I asked them to number a page in their notebook from 1 to 100 (or, three pages, as it turned it). Students were then directed to skim each page we had previously read, and to devise a title which would 1) help to summarize that page, and 2) identify what was most memorable on that page. I modeled the first two pages, and we then completed two more as a group. After that, students were off to the races.

At first some students struggled to choose short titles which yielded a uniquely identifiable summary of the page, but I allowed quiet discussions between partners; these conversations helped students to persevere with the task and be successful.

Once I observed some signs of fatigue, I stopped students and announced that we were going to play a game. I asked each student to mark three favorite titles. "Choose titles you feel are clever, or especially descriptive of that page. The titles should be so accurate that anyone in the class will be able to identify the exact page you're describing."

I called on the first student who announced, "My Mother's Smile." Immediately hands shot up all over the classroom, and when I asked for the choral answer, nearly every students replied, "23!" Each student who was correct tallied a point in the margin of their page, including the student who shared the title, since he was successful in guiding everyone to the right page. Note that only a few students had the same title, but nearly every student had a similar idea which allowed them to determine the page. By calling out the same page number, they were successful.

Okay, Keith, cool game. But what's the point?

The Long Game

This turned into an excellent lesson on skimming and getting the gist of a text. Skimming and scanning are two tools that are indispensable for readers, especially in the context of nonfiction texts. In fact, skimming and scanning are likely used more often in everyday reading scenarios for adults than reading of complete texts.

After a long day sight seeing in the city, for example, we might stop at several restaurants and skim the menu posted in their windows. What type of fare does this restaurant offer and what prices are we expected to pay? That's skimming. Once we choose our restaurant and are seated, each of us might look quickly over the menu, me for cheapest option, my friend for a vegan option. That's scanning. Once I located the burger of my choice, I would then read closely to see that all of its ingredients were to my liking. That's my complete reading.

Nearly every day, we as teachers demand that students "read carefully and closely," but with skimming we demand that students do the exact opposite. And not surprisingly, it doesn't come naturally to students. In my classroom, we needed to discuss several times what we as readers could do to avoid the temptation to reread every page.

Students also learned not to be "too creative." Some students who devised an overly creative or funny title for a page soon discovered that no one else had any clue what page they were referring to. Classmates also argued that certain titles, one hundred pages from now, wouldn't make sense once the reader had forgotten the clever connection. Therefore, during the game, students were permitted to change their page titles if they heard another that they preferred.

When we played the game a second day (focusing on pages 30-75), I took the time to suggest alternate "poor" titles for each page, challenging students to explain why these titles weren't as effective as those they had created (some were redundant, others too general, etc). I also began setting them up for the final day's prompt, when I would ask them to describe the benefits of the the Page Titles technique. I asked, "What evidence can we find in the story that our protagonist Doug Swieteck appreciates beauty?" Using their page titles, students were able to identify several examples, from an icy bottle of coke to his mother's eyes to the flowers he plants in the yard to the Audubon images he admires in the library.

The Longer Game

As with all techniques introduced to my class, I provide students with a rationale before introducing the steps. The rationale for Page Titles was "to recall earlier events and ideas in a lengthy text."

But after two days in which we had completed one hundred page titles (roughly half of them at home), I wrote the following prompt on the board (student ideas follow):

What are the benefits of writing Page Titles?
  • to summarize the primary ideas or events of the page
  • to review pages which were read some time ago
  • to help locate pages quickly
  • to find where you left off
  • to easily locate text evidence
  • to remember important quotes
  • to identify important passages or events
  • to recognize patterns or recurring events 
  • to compare and contrast events
  • to refer to a certain page that a classmate discusses
  • to better help you understand a character's motives or actions
  • to eliminate the need to reread every page, every time
  • to focus your attention on what you've read
Students admitted that the last bullet (which I needed to provide myself) was particularly important, since we sometimes "read" to the bottom of the page, and see every word on that page, but then ask ourselves, "What did I just read?"

In the highly recommended Reading Strategies Book, Jennifer Serravallo offers several strategies for students to use in order to maintain engagement in a book. But can students always tell that they've broken engagement with a text? Struggling to create a page title is a clear indicator that you, as the reader, haven't read a page as closely as needed, or you have failed to make a connection between what you've read here and what you've read before. Creating a page title forces you to be mindful of each page.

For you, the teacher, this technique pays off big time. For reluctant readers, this strategy allows a painless way to review the text and cement understandings. For all readers, Page Titles allow students to more quickly access text evidence in order to respond thoughtfully to class discussions and writing prompts. Strategies such as Serravalo's Piling Together Traits to Get Theories (Strategy 6.21, page 186) or Notice a Pattern and Give Advice (Strategy 7.1, page 194) or Respond to Issues that Repeat (Strategy 7.20, p. 213) are made less intimidating when the scavenger-hunt aspect is removed from identifying direct evidence in a lengthy text. So the Page Titles technique isn't an end in itself, but in fact a tool that achieves loftier goals in the classroom.

Give it a go. I would love to hear about your students' experiences in the classroom!

Monday, January 2, 2017

Reading Reconsidered: A Playbook for Improved Practice

Whether you’re a new teacher of reading, a seasoned practitioner, or an old dog (like me!), Reading Reconsidered is a must read. Unlike so many other books on the subject of literacy instruction, this text provides an astounding repertoire of strategies and structures, tools and techniques, which can improve the instructional practice of educators at any level.

Where needed, the authors provide references to the studies behind their methods, but the book isn’t meant to be theoretical. It’s meant to be an action plan. The majority of practices discussed in the book are from the classrooms of effective teachers (many from Doug Lemov’s Uncommon Schools), teachers who have led ordinary students to achieve extraordinary results. The examples provided come from countless familiar texts (Grapes of Wrath, Number the Stars, The Great Gatsby, The Outsiders, Lily's Crossing, Lord of the Flies, Chains, etc.) which are taught in thousands of classrooms across the country. For seasoned teachers, many of this book’s ideas will reinforce and validate what you’re already doing in the classroom. As I read, I often found myself saying, “I’ve always done that, and I knew that it worked, but I never knew why until now.”

In other instances, I experienced small epiphanies.

Many teachers, for example, wonder why students do so well in reading comprehension when assessed informally or formatively but then perform poorly when assessed summatively or on “cold” material such as that found on standardized tests. The authors explain that a common cycle in classrooms is reading, discussion, and then writing. This typically yields good results, with all students seeming to be “on the same page.”

However, this particular cycle often yields a false positive; rather than expressing their understanding of the reading, students instead express their understanding of the discussion of that reading. The classroom discussion spackled over any misconceptions or glaring gaps in knowledge, and every student as a result now seems to possess a full comprehension of the text (including those students who may have neglected to even read the text, but paid diligent attention to the ensuing discussion!). That cycle's limitations never occurred to me, and I’ll admit I’ve been lulled by these false positives over the years, thinking that my students knew more than they truly did.

Regarding this practice, the book states, “You want engaged, enthused, deep-thinking readers driving discussion, but you also want to be sure that all students are able to generate solid meaning themselves.” The authors then show how to improve this cycle, as well as how to implement other reading-writing-discussion cycles which better encourage and assess comprehension of, and interaction with, the chosen text. In regard to TDQ (text dependent questions), the authors further explain:

TDQs are those that cannot be answered without a firm knowledge of the text itself. They cannot be faked by carefully listening to the discussion, for example, or by conducting an earnest but in exact reading of the chapter. They cannot be answered by recalling yesterday's reading or by having a strong background knowledge of the subject. To answer TDQs requires attentive reading. Nothing else will do. (p. 75)

Please realize that this book is NOT a quick read! That is meant not as a criticism but as a compliment. Nearly every single page of my copy has margins jammed with notes. Nearly every single chapter has caused me, a teacher 25+ years, to tweak what I’m doing in my classroom. I've revisited the chapter on Close Reading, for example, more times than I can count. While I’ve plowed through dozens of other books on literacy with only the slightest impact on my teaching, I’ll humbly admit that this book has helped me fine tune my practice in nearly every aspect. Using the myriad models and exemplars provided in the text as well as the DVD and web site, I’ve improved discussion, assessments, lesson structure and pacing, often with the slightest change.

That’s what I think is most notable about this book: rather than demand that teachers change everything they’re doing, the authors provide ways for educators to reflect on their practices, ask the right questions about what they're trying to achieve, and implement those targeted changes that aggregate impressive results over time.

To whet your appetite, here are a few thoughts from Reading Reconsidered:

On the job of the reading teacher:

The reading teacher's job... is to ensure that each and every student - privileged in knowledge and skills or not, motivated (at first) or not - moves steadily and reliably toward mastery of advanced, complex skills. This requires understanding how such skills are built, not just hoping they will bloom. (p. 2)

On "whole books" as source texts:

One of the most important aspects of choosing texts is choosing the types of texts — most important, books, plenty of them, rather than a constant diet of excerpts, passages, and other selections. We are strong believers in “the power of the book,” of students building a sustained relationship with the text over time and coming to understand its perspective and mode(s) of narration- and how they shift. In fact, only by glimpsing these changes and variations as part of a sustained relationship between reader and text can students really learn to read… Even in an era of test-based accountability, the most successful schools and teachers consistently opt, in our observations, for books — and books of substance — as the core of their instructional choices. (p. 25)

On the limits of leveling books:

The places where books fell when we graphed them didn't seem in accord with our sense of what students really found it difficult. This is best shown in the nearly equivalent Lexile scores given to Lord of the Flies and The Outsiders. They are, according to the graph, all but interchangeable. In terms of our students’ experiences reading them, however, they couldn't be more different. One was among the most challenging books our seventh graders read, while the other was among the easiest. (p. 27)

On the importance of reading for pleasure:

A world in which students did nothing but slog through hundreds of pages of Dickens would be a pretty dark and Dickensian one. Our advice is to address the plagues with balance and judiciousness. Should you read some texts just for the sheer joy of them? Or for the power of the story a certain book tells about the world? Of course! You don't need us to tell you there are lots of other reasons to choose books than text complexity, no matter how much it helps prepare students for college. (p. 43)

On the importance of challenging texts:

Fed on a diet of only what's “accessible” to them — but which is also often insufficient to prepare them for college — they are consigned to lower standards from the outset by our very efforts to help them. So the question for a harder text should not be whether but how, in addition to what. (p. 44)

On text dependent questions:

Text-dependent questions are specific and can be answered only when students have read carefully and understood an author’s specific arguments. They do not preclude other word the questions; in fact they often precede them. (p. 62)

On close reading:

As we noted earlier, regardless of what line(s) of questioning you choose to employ in a particular lesson, trying to Close Read with insufficiently complex text is unlikely to succeed. The rigor and value of establishing meaning correlate to the rigor and value of the text.(p. 83)

A key aspect of Close Reading, ultimately, is identifying and attending to a line of inquiry. It's what you do when you write a paper about a text. So it is often helpful to know before you start what idea you want students to read a text for. This does not have to mean there is a “right answer” so much as a consistent area of focus — a line of inquiry you will follow. Often this means modeling how to “argue a line,” tracing a theme, a motive, a conflict, or an image through the complexity of a text. Other times, it could mean asking students to identify the “line” they find the most interesting. That's great too — especially if they've seen you model how to do it right. (p. 99)

For example, it is important to use Close Reading skills in response to both challenge (“Wow, that is really hard; I'm going to go back through and tear it apart until I get what she means”) and opportunity (“Wow, that imagery is so striking; I'm going to go back through and make sense of why it seems so important”). (p. 102)

On secondary texts:

A powerful, rigorous, and engaging primary text is one of the key drivers of successful literacy instruction, but it is also useful to think about the additional shorter texts that relate to the primary text in some way. These secondary texts could give context, provide background, show a contrast, or develop a useful idea that helps students better engage the primary text. Nonfiction, we argue, is ideal as a secondary text. (p. 122)

On writing for reading:

Long ago, before credit cards and the Euro, when you traveled, you could use only money coins in the kingdom where you were at the time. Regardless of the amount of money you had, if it wasn't in the “coin of the realm,” it wouldn't help you much. To this day, ideas, interpretations, and analyses are similar. They get full faith and credit only if they are expressed in the coin of the realm, which, in college and in much of professional life, means in writing. Written responses are the way students demonstrate their depth of understanding. In almost any college classroom — certainly in the humanities — it is the format in which mastery is finally expressed and in which ideas get the fullest credit. (p. 160)

On the perils of confusing discussion with text comprehension:

Certainly at some point we want students to combine their own insights with the best of what their peers thought, but our responsibility as reading teachers is to ensure that students can create meaning directly from reading, on their own and without the support of a roomful of peers… Some of our smartest students are able to compensate for a lack of critical reading skills with good listening skills, and the two are not the same. (p. 163)

From Reading Reconsidered, pp. 164, 165

On student autonomy:

As students gain autonomy in their thinking, they’ll ideally begin initiating Stop and Jots without teacher prompting. Student-generated practices include marking up a text with notes in the margin, writing a quick self-generated summary at the end of a particularly challenging text, or posing a question regarding the author’s tone between paragraphs while reading. These are useful behaviors to look for to assess the degree to which students have internalized writing as a thinking tool: Do they grab their pencils and scribble notes of their own volition as they are reading or listening to discussions? (p. 169)

On revision in writing (using Read-Write-Discuss-Revise):

But revising is more than just a tool to bolster discussion. The act of revision forces students to refine their initial analysis. Writing to define is among the most rigorous and important tasks we can ask of our students. Consistently asking students to revise their writing supports them in effectively polishing their writing and ideas. Further, asking students to revise based on insights from the discussion causes them to listen better during discussion. It socializes students to listen differently — they must listen actively for ways to develop their initial ideas. (p. 173)

On explicit and implicit vocabulary instruction:

A primary goal of Explicit Vocabulary Instruction is to model for students the depth of knowledge that is involved in mastering words: to own a word has to know not just its definition but its different forms, its multiple meanings, its connotations, and the situations in which it is normally applied. Explicit Vocabulary Instruction models this for students by making a case study out of certain words and their application. Its goal is depth, and it requires studying fewer words better. It is a deep dive into a limited number of words — sometimes just one or two — rather than a cursory introduction or gloss-over of long lists of terms. (p. 253)

One of the best ways to ask students to use and apply new vocabulary words is to ground your questions in the text. Consider asking students to describe situations or novels that you are reading. (For example, “Which one of our vocabulary words describes how Jesse must be feeling right now? Why?”) (p. 283)


If you've ever read Teach Like a Champion, consider this a worthy companion. Reading Reconsidered describes how many techniques (such as Front the Writing, p. 165) from TLAC are put into play in the reading/writing classroom.

Reading Reconsidered is a huge book of over 400 pages, but don't let that daunt you. When we buy a recipe book we don't think, "I can never make all of this food at once!" Instead, we try one dish at a time, gaining confidence in an ever-expanding repertoire of dishes and the requisite skills needed to create them.

If your PLN is seeking a change-provoking title for a book club, this text will provide you with at least a year’s worth of study and discussion. It's especially effective in this regard due to the numerous specific teaching strategies, the DVD exemplars of these strategies in action, and the extensive print resources provided in text chapters as well as the appendix.

Highly recommended for teachers-to be, as well as practicing professionals at any level.