Sunday, 23 September 2012

Running Through Patterns

A few years back, I picked up long distance running.  Maybe it was the milestone birthday I hit, or the inspiration my friend gave me after surviving a terrible accident, or the self-inflating tire that mysteriously appeared around my belly.  Whatever the case, I hit the pavement like never before.

At first, I thought, no problem.  I'll lace up my shoes and run for hours.   How hard can it be?  It wasn't long until I limped home realizing I was in way over my head.  I knew nothing about pacing myself, keeping hydrated, or wearing the right equipment, and I had to if I wanted to keep my body going.

So I did what people do when they learn new things.  I consulted the experts. One of the books I read was the Non-Runner's Marathon Trainer.  In it, the authors organized their ideas into 17 chapters, each one covering one week of the training schedule.  What I couldn't believe as I literally worked through the book was how spot on they were.  It was as if they were right there running every step of the way alongside me.  They knew exactly what I was struggling with both physically and emotionally, and they provided tips to overcome my obstacles.  They even encouraged me to adopt other habits related to eating and stretching that would enhance my running life.  And it worked.

What I didn't realize then is that experts see things in patterns.  They know their subject so well, they can predict the pleasures and pitfalls that aspiring amateurs in their field will experience as they grow in competence.  For running, there were patterns in building endurance, maintaining energy levels, and keeping fit that I knew nothing about.  Thank goodness they shared them with me, and thank goodness I listened.

Well, it's the same with writing, and this weekend I spent some time working with Carl Anderson, an expert on writing and conferring, at a conference at UWC.  

Like the authors in the running book, Anderson sees patterns in writing or developmentally typical things writers do as they try to get better.  He laid out a number of them, and he encouraged us to focus our teaching points based on the patterns we see.
Carl Anderson

According to Anderson, patterns emerge in the three broad domains of what we want our writers to know and do.  We want them to...
  • initiate writing.
  • write well.
  • develop a process for writing that works.

Within the "write well" domain, Anderson notes five areas that make for good writing (which can easily be linked to the Six Traits framework):
  • Meaning
  • Structure
  • Details
  • Voice
  • Conventions

To understand what he's saying, let's look at an example.  For meaning, you might have a student who includes every detail they can about a story even those that don't really matter.  As a result, the reader is wondering what the piece is all about.  The meaning is just unclear.  Anderson calls this an "all about" pattern, named after those "All About" books in the younger grades.  To address this pattern in a teaching point, we might ask that student, "So what's important?" and then teach that writers delete parts that aren't connected and expand parts that are.  Many of us do this in our "heart" or "the seed vs. the watermelon" mini-lesson.  (For more examples of other patterns and related teaching points, click here.)  

Noticing this as a pattern though is significant because Anderson says that patterns transcend genres.  In other words, that "all about" pattern can show up in non-narrative writing as well.  Think of the student who has to include every single detail he researched on a given topic in his piece of writing.  

Since patterns transcend genres, so too can the feedback I give my students.  I had always thought that my feedback for narrative writing (i.e., use purposeful dialogue) wouldn't transfer to non-narrative writing.  After all, how often do writers use dialogue in this genre?  The thing is using dialogue is a technique for adding detail.  So the student who doesn't have a range of detail techniques in his repertoire for narrative writing may struggle with the same thing in his non-narrative writing.  In that way, I am beginning to think in patterns for my writers and address them across the genres and throughout the year more effectively.  

In many ways, I'm still that runner learning new ideas and techniques. This time though it's in the classroom.  With Anderson's patterns in hand, I feel as though I know what to look for and teach into it more precisely.  Will I get it right right away?  To be honest, I'm not counting on it.  I'll struggle a bit as I raise the level of my teaching and try it out.  I certainly struggled on those longer runs at first.  When my students learn a new writing technique, they don't use it with finesse on their first go.  One thing's for sure though, I can I make my way through my conferences with a greater understanding of what writing is and how I can move my students forward as writers.  And while I know I've still got miles to go in this race, I feel as though my students and I will make it in better shape as a result.

Images from:,

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Gearing Up for Game Plans

One of the things I love about this time of year is football.  I'm not a diehard fan or anything.  I can't even name more than a few players, but there's something about watching two teams battle it out yard by yard.  For me, autumn just isn't complete without it.

Unfortunately, we don't have those crisp, fall afternoons where I can plug into a game here.  Not only that, I'm subjected to viewing the games 2 am or avoiding spoiler alerts the next day until I can replay them on my DVR.  It just isn't the same, but there's one aspect of the game that I do replicate in my own way here.  It's the game plan.

In football, before the players and coaches hit the field, each team sets a game plan, a series of plays they have chosen to use in their first drive down the field.  They've decided on these plays based on their strengths and their opponents' weaknesses.  They've practiced them over and over, minimizing any possibility that they won't work.  And while every play may not turn out the way they hope, they are prepared, focused and determined to succeed.

When it comes to teaching literacy, I do the same thing.  With every unit, my colleagues and I craft focused mini-lessons and teach them with precision.  Like a well choreographed offense, we drive through the unit making minor adjustments to our mini-lessons, bringing our readers and writers to a successful touchdown.

A good game plan involves much more than the mini-lessons we teach though.  Like coaches on a team, we need to take time between the mini-lessons (or plays) to check and see how our players are doing. I know that this is where my game plan needs work.  

After teaching a mini-lesson, I often move through the conferring time bouncing from student to student, trying to meet with those students I've seen the least or catching up with what students are working on right then.  I teach into that moment wherever those students are and go from there.  It works, but it could be better.

Instead,  I need to approach my conferring with the same intensity and purpose as I do with my teaching.  This is the time when I can really move readers and writers forward.  How do I hope to do this?  With formative assessments.  By using them widely and often, I can use the conferring time to follow up with small groups of students who need follow up teaching points.  In other words, I can address the needs of my students at all levels, and if I get it right, I can move down that proverbial field with greater efficiency and accuracy.    

Teacher Dashboard, a quick access to students' work
Last week I tried it out.  Before sitting down, I set my timer for ten minutes to look through my student work and set a game plan.  I know how precious time is, and I'm finding that since the mini-lessons are written for the unit, I do have a few minutes extra to do this important work.

Through Teacher Dashboard, I sorted my students' drafts of Personal Narratives with, looking for how they were using dialogue.  In just a few minutes, I had three piles:  students who weren't using it, students who were using it, but could need to fine-tune it, and students who were using it with sophistication.  

I thought of the skill as a continuum with low, medium and high. To determine teaching points for each level, I asked myself what do these writers need to know or be able to do next in terms of using dialogue.  Finally I made a list of them for each level accordingly.

In the next day's conferring time, Nicole and I pulled the groups separately and taught specifically to each group.  Instead of hitting the whole group with one lesson or following up with each student independently, we taught with precision, highlighting the challenges they were facing as writers at each level and offering a greater range of tips to reach the next level.  It also gave us a chance to extend our highflying writers by pushing them to move from Personal Narrative to Memoir.  

While this work is still relatively new for me (as are some of the formative assessment tools such as Google forms, Confer App, Teacher Dashboard, and sticky notes as a spot check), I plan to add it to my overall game plan as I'm already noticing a difference in my players.  When I do, we'll all be winners as a result.

Images from:  AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike Some rights reserved by Cliff_Baise

Sunday, 9 September 2012

We Are the Light

Imagine 400 of the most proficient techies in Southeast Asia congregating physically (and virtually) to share the latest and greatest tech tools out there.  Scary, isn't it?  That's exactly where I found myself this weekend at the Google Summit.

I have to admit, on that first day, I felt out of my league.  I spent my day going from session to session soaking up every idea.  Some of them came at me so fast, the whole experience was "like drinking from the fire hydrant of opportunity," (as Brian M. quoted Bill Hoffman in one of his tweets).  By the end of the day, I was drenched.  Here was this whole community out there doing amazing things with innovative tools, and I barely knew about it.  

A bit overwhelmed, I returned on Sunday, ready to fill up an already full tank when the keynote speaker, Rushton Hurley, reminded me of something important, no matter where we lie on the technology continuum.

My "ah ha" moment began when he showed us this video:

My initial reaction was, yup, I'm the lamp.  I get it.  Like that has-been light fixture, I live in a fast-paced world, and I can't keep up.  That's when Rushton said, "We're not the lamp, we're the light."  And what is our light?  It's when we connect with our students at the time they need it the most.  

That's when it hit me.  Here I was trying to pick up every new trick and tip, but it's not about the technology.  It's about finding more efficient ways to connect with our students and have them to connect with each other.

I remembered the video I had seen in a session on Saturday.  In it, a science teacher used a Google form to ask her students about how they were doing.  As if unlocking a seemingly bolted door, she provided a way through which her kids could express their feelings.  She connected with them unlike any other teacher, and their learning flourished.  Her light shined brighter as a result.

I began thinking about all of the tools I was learning this weekend: Teacher Dashboard, Google Forms, Youtube, Twitter, Google Apps, Google Hangout, and more.  They aren't tools that I need to learn so I can keep up.  They are opportunities for me to connect with my students.  When I use Teacher Dashboard to quickly read through student drafts to see where my writers are or create a Google form to get some instant feedback from my students, I can fine-tune my teaching with more precision.  My light will shine brighter as a result.

The lamp video failed to mention one thing.  With both lamps working together, the whole room is brighter.  Last week, in my Power of Partnerships post, I wrote that I'm not the only teacher in the room. I know that my students have lots to learn from each other, and if I use just one tool that showcases their expertise and perspective, I know that my whole classroom will be brighter as a result.  Check out this video that Rushton shared with us:

By creating this video, this student is able to teach others new possibilities, and when they give him feedback, he finds purpose and place in the community.  His light shines brighter as a result.

Here's the thing.  Our lights aren't broken.  In fact, with the growth we've made over the past few years, they're brighter than ever.  I know this because I've seen it.  With technology though, we'll be able to do it even better.  Believe me, we shouldn't feel as though we need to learn every new tool and trick out there.  There's just no way we can.  After all, there are people around us who already have.  What we need to do is to keep them in mind and call on them when those tools may make a greater difference.  And by having those experts show us how to use them, their light will shine  brighter as a result.

By Sunday afternoon, I no longer felt out of place nor overwhelmed.  I realized that this wasn't just a technology conference.  It was much greater than that.  It was about sharing ideas that work.  It was about leveraging our collective intelligence.  It was about connecting with others to find purpose and place.  In essence, it was all about good teaching and learning, and that's what I strive for each day in my classes.  Now, with some help from those around me, I hope to do it even better.

Saturday, 1 September 2012

The Power of Partnerships

Somedays I get so caught up in my teaching that I forget something important: I'm not the only teacher in the room. No, I'm not talking about Nicole, my trusted Resource teacher without whom I just wouldn't make it. I'm talking about the other 20 readers and writers in the room who all have thoughts to share and tips to offer. That's why I've found partnerships to be such an essential component of my workshops.

There's absolutely no way I can get around to every reader and writer, even with the best of intentions following a two week cycle.  With partners, however, I can be sure that every reader and writer gets some attention each day. By listening in to their talk whether it is during a turn and talk for a read aloud or at the end of an independent writing session, I can quickly gauge where my students are at individually and collectively, and I can adjust my teaching accordingly. 

Teachable Moments that Matter

Of course good partnerships don't just happen naturally. Based on what I'm noticing from my partnerships, I can teach lessons such as how to ask for specific feedback, how to give constructive feedback, and how to keep a conversation going. Over time, my students will learn to do these skills naturally and carry them into their other classes.

Partnerships Teach a Whole Lot More

Not only do partners benefit from the talk about reading and writing, they also learn how important it is to advocate for themselves and to honor what others do for them.  Before I have students think about who they want as a partner, I have them write down what kind of reader and writer they are, and what they are looking for in a partner. Instantly, their thinking changes from, "I want to work with _______," to "I need a partner who will help me with __________." During this lesson, I then have students get up and "interview" possible partners. 

Another idea I picked up at a workshop is to have partners thank each other at the end of a partnership cycle. By making a bookmark, writing a note, or finding a quote or poem as a "thank you", partners honor their time together and the contributions they make to each other.  As a result, relationships grow stronger, and whole community becomes closer.

When certain partnerships work, I've found that they'll do anything to keep the partnership together.  And if they are thriving as readers and writers, why not?  I don't make it easy for them though.  I tell them to persuade me (with specific examples) why they should stay as a team.  Nine times out of ten, they do.

Holding Each Other Accountable

An added benefit to having partnerships is that I'm not the only one holding my readers and writers accountable. They now have to answer to their partners.  This certainly comes to play when you have partnerships read multiple copies of the same book. In Matt's class, he recently booktalked some titles for the character unit, and partners will decide on a title and set a reading calendar. Together, they will work through the text, trying out some of the strategies that Matt will demonstrate in his read aloud.

The Possibility of Triads

When we think of partnerships we often think of twos, but a variation of this is the triad. Erin and Scott T. like triads because there is still a partnership intact when students are absent. I also like triads for my special needs students as they are given an instant model of how other students work together and think as readers and writers.

Final Considerations

When I began using partnerships, I didn't have all the answers. I just jumped in and figured things out as they came. But boy, am I glad I did. The thing is, I'm still grappling with questions like:  
  • How often should I change partners?
  • What should I do if a partnership isn't work?
  • Should I make partnerships of students with the same or mixed ability?

Maybe I'll never figure partnerships out totally, but one thing is for sure, partnerships are a powerful addition to my workshops.