As a member of this Online Book Club, you are expected to post to the book blog at least once per week between now and July 11 -- that's six weeks. You should finish your book before then, and you will meet during the Institute in your groups to extend the discussion and plan how to present the book to the others in the Institute.

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Saturday, June 25, 2016

Lighting a Fire

Photo from https://eastwest.force.com/apex/Offers?Experience=Celebrations%20$%20Festivals; Text added by Me :)

As I write this blog post, I am at a conference for some professional development in Denver. It is exciting and reinvigorating to be with other educators who are trying new things, finding ways to provide amazing learning opportunities, and thinking critically about how to improve their own practice. After a long year of teaching, this conference as well as the ideas in the book (that I will discuss below) is exactly what I needed to reflect on my own teaching, inspire myself to try new things, and set some goals for next year. This post will specifically focus on my ideas and thoughts about Chapters 2-3 (about reading and writing) in terms of my key take-aways, some specific goals I have for myself for next year, and some lingering questions about which I would appreciate help and feedback.

Take-Aways / I Learned...
In the two chapters about reading and writing, I found myself focusing on a number of similarities in their overall messages about what this means for effective teaching and inspired learning. There are four main things I learned or was reminded of in these chapters that also help to inform the goals I'm setting for the next year.
  1. Learners need explicit instruction and a clear breakdown of skills, expectations, and goals. This came through most clearly for me when Lattimer (2014) writes, "Too few students are actually taught how to critically engage with complex texts in a manner that prepares them for the reading expectations of life after high school" (p. 26). Too often do I (and others) assume that students know how to read, comprehend, and think through the different forms of text we present them. They need clear direction on what is expected of them, why, and how they can and should work to achieve those goals.
  2. We need to provide learning opportunities with authentic tasks and audiences because this helps with student motivation and interest and also leads to more student-driven purposes for reading. That is to say that the students will be more likely to be actively thinking about why they need to read a particular text, what they hope to learn from it or get out of it, and thus become more engaged in finding, analyzing, and thinking about sources as well as creating, revising, and sharing their own productions. This idea is true for both reading and writing as demonstrated by the following two quotations from Lattimer (2014). "In the world beyond high school, people read when they need to answer real questions in response to real problems" (p. 31). And, "Too often, writing in schools isn't communication between a writer and an audience; it is a grade-driven transaction between a teacher and a student" (p. 62). We need to show learners that these skills are actually lifelong skills by preparing them for and engaging them with authentic questions with real audiences.
  3. Our classrooms and teaching strategies must work together to create a community of learners that supports and encourages both collaboration, debate, and student accountability. In writing, Lattimer (2014) describes how, "Uncovering varying stories leads to more questions, further research, and hard discussions about the nature of history as well as the nature of 'truth'" (p. 61), which is exactly what I hope students will do in history and in life as they work to understand different perspectives. Similarly in reading, she references some other research to say,  "When students can talk about their reading, comprehension increases and retention of information is strengthened" (p. 26-27). Again, this is what we as teachers hope for (learning and retention). However, this is only really possible if you have a community that is supportive, collaborative, and inquisitive. As Lattimer (2014) explains, "Interactions with peers, readers, reviewers, and supervisors help writers to clarify their thinking, communicate effectively, and ensure that they are achieving their intended purpose" (p. 64). Without a community of learners to help each other, debate ideas, and hold each other accountable, we are making more work for ourselves and providing fewer opportunities for growth for our students.
  4. Throughout all teaching, we must give students lots of time to practice with reflection. Not only does Lattimer (2014) emphasize the importance of "Practice, Practice, Practice" in both chapters 2 and 3, but it is also abundantly clear through all of the sample lessons she provides in these chapters. The projects and learning opportunities created for students give extensive amounts of time to practice these skills and reflect on them as they go. It takes time and thoughtful practice to improve and master these skills, so we need to make sure students not only do that practice and reflection but that we provide meaningful opportunities for them to do so.
Goals / I will...
In addition to these key ideas identified above, I also set myself some personal goals for what I will try to do in my own classes in the coming year. Although I hope all of these things will help me develop in my own teaching practice and work towards doing all the things I just listed above, I also wanted to come up with some concrete things I knew I could do that were fairly realistic and manageable with some legwork on my part.
  1. I will help students develop their clear purpose for reading and hopefully include something similar to the poster in the case study classroom that helps students do this by asking the following: 1) What are you reading? (title, author, source); 2) What do you expect to learn from it? (information, ideas, perspectives); and 3) How will it help you answer your research question? I will make something similar, but may adjust slightly to also include some prompts to help get students thinking through a source evaluation technique we use at our school.
  2. I will include mini-lessons with the just-in-time approach followed by individual conferences with students. I sort of did this with some projects this year, but I really like the idea of focusing mini-lessons on clear and specific skills that students will need that day and then following up with them to see how it works, and give further guidance if needed.
  3. I will connect with my communities to help create authentic audiences. A couple ideas that I have for how to do this include interviewing different community members in different roles about what it means to be American or about their immigration stories (for my US history class). We could also find ways to provide some products (like a books or comics) explaining what they've learned to elementary school students in our district.
  4. I will teach and model skills that I am expecting students to use. So the mini-lessons I create will not just be about reading and writing, but also include instruction about how to collaborate effectively, evaluate sources, and provide clear and useful feedback to peers. I'm not entirely sure how to teach or explain all of these things just yet, but hopefully I can figure it out (and get help from others, too).
Questions / I wonder...
Finally, I'm wondering about how best to do the following, so if you have tips, advice, suggestions, or are feeling the same things and are willing to grapple with it all together, please reach out!
  1. As mentioned above, how do you clearly and explicitly teach skills like noticing things in texts, collaborating with others, or organizing notes and information? Are their mini-lessons from the case studies in the book available? Or are there are other resources of sample lessons for teaching these "soft" skills?
  2.  Lattimer (2014), says, "An effective real-world writing assignment has clear expectations but avoids giving so much structure that the writing become formulaic" (p. 65). How do you find the happy balance of structure without formula? When first helping my middle school students to develop and writing thoughtful essays, how do I help them master the structure without giving them a sort of formula to write their thesis, topic sentences, etc.?
  3. Many of these exemplary case studies have outside experts come in to school to present the problem and evaluate final projects, and most are also having students ask these experts or community members questions in interviews. How do you find the time and funding support to help students do all these interviews/field trips? With 8th and 9th grade students, they cannot drive themselves, and coordinating transportation is an incredible hassle for the most part. So, I'm wondering how I can get my students out into the community and also how all these teachers convinced already busy professionals to take time to come in to school to evalute student work.
As always, I look forward to discussing more with all of you about this and hopefully beginning to answer my questions, but at the very least, this conference and these chapters in the book have helped reinvigorate me as a teacher. They reminded me that, "Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire," as William Butler Yeats said. I just rekindled my own fire and passion for teaching, and I hope this summer will help me come up with concrete ways to light fires in the minds of each of my students this fall.

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