Friday, January 28, 2011

The battle between 'the rules' and 'what's right'

The district is focusing on reading.

I thought that was kind of nice, when I heard it. I mean, it would have been good if they'd started promoting reading a while ago, but better late than never.

Of course, it's all very nice to say we're focusing on reading at the top level. But then it filters down to the school level. And at my school, that means compulsory guided reading. More specifically, every child must participate in a guided reading group, every week, in every classroom across the school.

When I first heard this, I was uneasy. Guided reading can be great when you want to focus on a particular book/topic/skill (it worked wonderfully with The Arrival), but I tend to use it as a 'some of the time' part of my Reader's Workshop - applying it when I think it will be most useful. Other times I focus on one on one conferences, slightly longer mini lessons, or getting through the endless reading testing they also insist we complete. Also, I was worried that the need to get through every child, every week would lead to surface reading, not the deep reading I desperately want the students to reach.

Since I first heard about this last year, I've continued to read about reading. One of my recent books was More Than Guided Reading by Cathy Mere. Althought this was aimed at the younger grades, a lot of her findings rang true with me. In her experience, just focusing on guided reading meant students were more dependant on the teacher, lessons tended to be teacher focused and the students were actually doing less reading. Guided reading was one tool, not the main tool.

And there lies my problem. Reader's Workshop has been working in my classroom over the last year and a half. I can see the results in the way students read, in their responses to text, in the way they write. And their test results are backing this up. But in the service of 'being consistent', I'm expected to drop or change this to follow their 'rules'.

How do we fight the battles of right and rules when those in charge don't read the research, or worse, the local research is so badly done? (I no longer trust any research coming from the University I went to). How do we teach for our students and our administrations? And when will administrations realise that teachers are individuals with their own individual strengths as well?

Picture from flickr

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

2011: Fresh start, new class

We've now completed two days of the new school year here in Queensland. For a lot of children, there's almost a sense of relief associated with coming back to school - it was a holiday of rain and images of floods for most of them.

I've started the year with a half new, half old class. One group of children moved up with me (some of those students will have a third year with me), while another (two grades younger) joined me. So far it seems to be working really well.

One thing I'm enjoying is re-introducing Reader's Workshop. It's only been two days, so all we've done is talk about what good reading feels like and about Holiday, Challenge and Just Right books. We've also looked at new books that I bought over the holidays. The joy of keeping some old students is that they have experience; they describe reading as almost magical, as slipping away into new worlds. With older kids doing that, I really don't have to sell reading at all to the younger students.

I anticipate some challenges to the way I teach reading this year. This saddens me, but I'm ready for the fight. The students had excellent results last year, and I'm continuing to do lots of professional reading so I'm ready.

I'm feeling more enthusiastic about teaching at the moment, and really hoping that momentum holds through to blogging. I think I still have things to say and share about creating a reading community, and every now and then I can even indulge in a good old fashioned rant. For now, I'm going to enjoy my middle of the week holiday (it's Australia Day here) and think about where I'm headed next. Should be fun!

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Teaching Funk

It was a little scary to come back here and realise that I haven't posted anything since September.

Quite frankly, I'm in a teaching funk.

It's strange, because all in all I have a wonderful class, with brilliant parents. We've completed some really cool stuff this year. And there's only a week left of school. Yet I just can't get myself excited - really excited - about school at the moment.

I talked it over with a trusted collegue on Friday and came to some realisations:

I'm at the 5 year point
I am told that this is the point where teachers get dissatisfied. I've been in this teaching business long enough to know something about it, but I'm also at the point where I'm staring down another 30 odd years (give or take) of the same job.

I have an opinion
Oh boy, do I have opinions. And there are times where I'm beginning to say them. Except the admin seems so far away, on a lofty perch somewhere ('that's the way it is, there's no discussion, it's mandated') that there's no way to express those opinions. And I'm not the only one with these problems.

I haven't learned anything new this year
Well I have - I've learned about science teaching and I've learned about curriculum audits and I've done a LOT of professional reading and I took on a practical student and you always learn from them . . . but for the last two years I actually did something - ICT in 2008, gifted and talented and indigenous in 2009 - where I had to complete and hand something in. My study and hard work felt valued. This year, all the reading I've done hasn't felt valued.

I'm not happy with the direction we're heading
A month ago I applied for a job in a prestigeous private school. Although I didn't get the job, I got an interview and an insight into how things could be different. And it saddens me that the public system that I went through and I used to believe in, has strayed so far far away.

I can't count how many meetings I've been to this year where our students have been regarded as pieces of data. They're being judged by their NAPLAN results. We've stopped talking about how to reach the individual child, and instead we're being told what works in 'successful schools'. Next year we're going to have to 'do' certain lessons, even if what we've already been doing has worked. No one is an idividual anymore - not teachers and not students. We're supposed to teach the same way, at the same time, to identical students.

While this may make things easy for the administration (and it looks good to curriculum auditors), it's completely draining if you don't - as teacher or student - meet their definition of the middle ground. If you want to try new ideas, if you want to explore a topic in depth, if you want to give open ended options, if you want to read your own books . . . you won't be right.

How do I pull myself from the 'funk'
This is where it gets hard. I know I'm not at my most effective when I'm feeling like this. I'm more irritable and cranky - and the kids cop it. I'm less motivated to plan interesting lesssons (particularly when I'm spending so much time 'inputting' data) which leads to more disruptive behaviour. I need to do something myself, because that's the only way it'll be effective.

Some thoughts:
  • Renegade teaching - I teach how I teach.
    The joy of often being forgotten in the school is that I could probably get away with this
  • Find the joy in what's happening
    I need to find and celebrate the good parts of each day
  • Keep in contact
    As I got more tied up in what was wrong, I stopped watching twitter or posting - I stepped away from the enthusiastic and experiences PLN I'd built. 
So hopefully, this means I'll be back to posting on a regular basis. I still have plenty to say about reading, and probably some really good rants up my sleeve too :-) 

Photo from Flickr

Monday, September 27, 2010

Reader's Refect: Returning to an old favourite

The other night I began rereading Tandia by Bryce Courtenay. I first read this book as a ten-year old, with great portions of it going a long way over my head. In fact, even now on the I-don't-know-how-many reread, there's still nuances that strike me for the very first time. (I'm still annoyed, however, about this re-edited version which misses some of the colour and detail of the original I read back in 1992)

What I still notice about Tandia is how Bryce Courtenay is first and foremost a story teller. He weaves words like we're all sitting in front of a campfire. Sometimes they're tall tales, completely beyond the limitations of reality. Sometimes there's inside jokes, just lying in wait for the sharp eared and quick witted. But always there's a grand story, something to hold on to and follow to its ultimate conclusion.

On my last reading of Tandia, I actually skipped over the initial chapters dealing with Tandia and only read the Peekay chapters. I think there was a hint of self-preservation there - I really, really hate seeing characters I like who are hurting. This time I read both of the character's stories, developing a richer appreciation for all the characters, both from The Power of One and new.

What did I learn about myself as a reader from this reread? That I really enjoy rereading, that my quick reading style lends itself to a reread, because inevitably I miss something on the first read through. I also like seeing characters that I thought I knew well, in completely new lights. I also adore a good story, even if sometimes the story goes off in completely implausible directions.

How can I apply this in the classroom? Well, it points out that it's okay to encourage rereading in the classroom, and that in some cases rereading is essential. Also the importance of having a good range of story stories available, something with a good plot that keeps the reader reading. Sometimes these stories are looked down on, we're told that they shouldn't be present in the classroom when there are 'real' books to read. It's up to teachers and librarians to make sure these engaging stories are available for all students to enjoy.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Where to now?

So, I've posted 100 entries, but my last one was a month ago. And it's been sporadic for the last few months. The problem was, I wasn't sure where I was going with this blog. There's only so much ranting I can do (sorry, I know some of you adore the ranting) and only so many things I can give advice on. Afterall, I'm still learning too.

*light bulb flash* First realisation - that it's ok to change the focus of the blog if it isn't really working. Today I bought myself a paper journal and just started writing about reading - I was still going 5 pages later. I have a lot to read, and reflect on and think about reading.

That's where I want to keep going at the moment. Talking about what reading means to me, and how this effects my teaching of it. A lot will come from paper journals, and hopefully it will be thoughtful and interesting. And a good reminder that I don't know everything, that it's okay to keep learning about myself as a reader.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

About Reader's Workshop: Unfair and Unrealistic Assessment

Each year in Queensland, our Year 4, 6 and 9 students are required to complete QCATS, Queensland Comparable Assessment Tasks in English, Maths and Science. These are supposed to be more 'realistic' tasks, similar to assessment we complete in the classroom. An alternative to the standardised testing that is NAPLAN. But . . .

Well, to be honest, I'd rather have my students doing NAPLAN at the moment (and I do both, so I know what they're both like!). Standardised tests are unfair, but a smart student can do well at them. This year, the English Year 6 QCAT is all about celebrating mediocrity.

There's three parts to the English task - 2 reading and 1 writing. (So far we've spent 5 and a half hours on this task and some are still going) The first part requires students to identify textual features (mostly) of a stimulus text. The stimulus text, two persuasive forum responses are quite poorly written. Students are asked to identify adjectives and adverbs in those texts, but one of them contains no simple adverbs (the types that are obviously describing a verb) even though the marking grid requires students to be able to list an adverb to get a D mark. Just to add insult to injury (we had tears on this section) we got an email over the weekend saying that the adverbs on the 'sample A response' were incorrect . . . . even the writers of the task couldn't accurately complete it.

Part two compares a visual text to the stimulus. Here, like in the first part, the questions want them to find examples, to prove their point. However the space provided is minimal, one or two lines. It's an interesting mix of wanting a lot (justify your answers -expecting more than one response - using examples from the text) and expecting little (but you only have 2 lines to answer this question - better not have big handwriting).

There has been an emphasis in the standardised testing world to ensure that tests at least try to be relevant to most of the students taking it. However, in a state with a huge number of indigenous and rural communities a long way away from owning many of the technological goods that clutter urban life, a task which requires them to discuss those goods is clearly unfair.

Part three is the writing part. Students are given a good topic, nice planning space (though written on the back on the writing part, so kids have to keep flipping back and forward) and reminders of what they are required to do. But the killer is that this 5 paragraph essay needs to fit under 200 words.

40 words a paragraph? Really? A persuasive argument with a topic sentence and supporting evidence? With adjectives and adverbs?

As teachers who give and support this task and then have to mark it, where are we supposed to go? Do we simply disregard the word limit and potentially have our hands smacked at moderation? Or do we insist that students give us substandard work, not the best they can do, with limited supporting evidence?

Although I admire those who move into renegade teaching, I've never really thought of myself as a renegade teacher before. Sure, I refuse to join in on 'highlighter reading' or 'whole class novels', but I've never wanted to deliberately 'break the rules.' Yesterday I did. When my best writer was forced to write a one sentence conclusion and was despondent about her writing, I broke them. I told her to remove the word limit, to aim for 250 words, to just simply write the best persuasive text she can. Sure there might be repurcussions, but I'll wear them myself. There are things worth fighting for, and requiring our students to complete the best possible work is one of them.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

About Reader's Workshop: Camp and the Problem with Standardisation

So, once again I'm coming back from a short break. This has become a bad habit, one which I really should endeavour to break. Though, part of it is completely explanatory.

Each year, our Year 7s go on a week long camp. It's near the beach, and there's a tonne of fun activities which students would have no chance of doing in their regular lives. (Yes, we go to the beach in the middle of winter) I wasn't supposed to go, but two weeks before the camp, got the call up. I was so glad I did go. When you get the students outside their regular environment, you get to see them in a totally different light. You get to interact with them differently and build a trust with them that you might not otherwise build.

How will this translate back into the classroom? I'm hoping that the relationships they've built with each other will continue to hold strong. I hope it means they'll trust me when I say 'you'll really like this book'!

Unfortunately coming back has meant that it's time for QCATS. This is another form of standardised assessment, except this one requires us to give the students (Grades 4,6 and 9 do QCATS) a booklet full of 'classroom like' assessment.

The English one this year is a mixture of reading and writing, and as with all standardised testing, it's trying to be all things to all people. What you end up with is something that is rather uninspiring and frankly quite depressing. (Rinse, lather and repeat in maths and science). What bothers me most is that to get an A, you don't have to think deeply or creatively about the text you've been reading. You don't have a chance to talk and think through what you are reading, to develop a shared consensus. You just have to tick all their boxes.

And there is my problem with standardised testing. It's been developed to fit students into the little boxes or else they've failed. That's not going to develop the critical, thoughtful readers we need going into the future. Just people who like filling in boxes.

Photo from Flickr

Thursday, July 22, 2010

About Reader's Workshop: Making Books Accessible

When I was writing my post about the reading habits of my students, one of the things I thought about was how my students were going about procuring their books. They all borrow books off me, of course. Many of them now use their local libraries (now that the councils are amalgamated there's a pretty huge choice), are common visitors to their local bookshops and even get brothers and sisters to get them books from the high school libraries.

But very few of them borrow from our own school library.

Why was this? I mean, there's a big resource there in the school library, they have access to it before school, during lunch breaks and after school, plus we go as a class once a week - so why aren't more of them borrowing?

It could be the time. During our borrowing time we only have fifteen minutes to look, choose and borrow. If we're running a little late, the class before us is late or the class after us is early, our time is cut down. Books in a library can be quite overwhelming, and most of these are spine out, so they take more time to look at. Do the students need more time to take in the books, to make plans about what they want to read, like they do in the classroom?

It could be the collection of books. Money to buy books in the library is always tight, and our librarian has to make some really hard choices about what books to buy and which ones not to. There's also less books for the 11-12 year olds, though that has improved over the last couple of years. But because the librarian is buying for 600 students, compared with me buying for 27, there will always be less books 'meant' for my students.

One thing that really struck me was accessibility. Our students are not allowed to borrow unless they have a library bag. I understand the theory here. Library bags keep library books together, they protect them in school bags, they let parents of younger children know that the children have borrowed. But when the students reach grade 6 and 7, they seem to be less comfortable with carrying a bag for library books around. I think it also makes them feel like they can't be trusted, and since they can be trusted with classroom books, which they can just throw in their school bag, or carry in their arms, they'd rather borrow those.

So, how can I make the books in the school library more accessible? I can't change the library policy on library bags, but maybe there's some way we can make the library more interesting, or more open to the students. What are the borrowing habits of your students?

Photo from flickr

Monday, July 19, 2010

Reader's Workshop Weekly Roundup: Week Twenty-Two

So, we returned back to school for term three last week. Unfortunately, it looks to be shaping up as a very chaotic term. Year 7s have camp, Year 6s have QCATs (more testing) and the school has been turned into a construction zone!

We began the term off with a huge book talk, where I introduced the books I'd read over the holidays. We also tallied up our books - nearly 100 read over the holidays between the whole class.

We began small group work last week. We're going to be focusing a lot on mysteries this term, so we completed a short mystery comprehension, looking at what the elements of a mystery were and retelling the story. The students enjoy working in the smaller groups, and we're working hard not to let those small lessons eat too much into reading time.

Popular books: well Alex Rider and CHERUB remain popular, as does the Battle Boy books. There's an air of anticipation for the final Hunger Games book. A lot of students were also eager to read Tomorrow When the War Began and Chasers. And they begged me to bring in the Dance Academy books I bought for myself, thinking no one would want to read them!

Thursday, July 15, 2010

About Reader's Workshop: Talking- The Problem with Why?

I've been reading Tell Me by Aidan Chambers as I talked about here. A lot of the things that Chambers writes about is how teachers can use talk and language to enable readers to come to deeper understandings.

Chambers points out that one of the worst phases to use when talking about reading is 'Why?' as in 'Why did this happen' or 'Why did you like it'. I know from experience that this question often leaves students grasping for an answer that they think I want to hear - it really places the teacher in the position of power, rather than creating a real community. Chambers suggests that 'why' also encourages students to give questions that don't have a tonne of meaning. Instead he suggests that teachers should provide a starting point, a detail that gives readers a place to move from.

Developing understanding from texts should be developed organically, Chambers points out. If we want to build up understanding from students, we should do it by asking them to tell us what they like or dislike from the text and then move through what puzzles them. Often by talking it out, students are able to see what they know as well as moving on to new understandings.

How does this apply in a reader's workshop classroom? Well I had a couple of thoughts about how I would be able to use it . . .

  • This approach provides an angle/language for conferring with students. I sometimes have problems with conferring, when students come to a dead end and you're not sure where to take them next. By starting with 'tell you what you like/dislike' you give the students a really comfortable place to begin - as their confidence builds, they are able to build their understanding.
  • This approach could also be used in small group lessons. As a group, students would be able to contribute to and build on an understanding together, contributing to their shared understanding. The questioning could be changed/adjusted to the aspects you want to discuss with the students.
  • You could also use this when working with read alouds. In my experience, talk is the best way to assess student understanding of read alouds, and this provides a good way for students to talk about a book, without feeling like it is assessment.
  • Students could be taught to use this language with each other. Book/reading buddies can be a really powerful way of sharing knowledge, and if this approach is modelled and taught, students could use it before writing book letters, or completing tasks. Alternatively, it could be used as the students are finishing their individual reading, to help them clarify their opinions and understandings right after they have read.
I'm definately going to be spending more time thinking about the use of language when talking about reading. Chambers has made some good points about language which halts conversation or prevents students from really coming to better understandings. I like the idea of letting understanding build organically, it makes a lot of sense to work that way. Hopefully this change in language will allow that to happen a lot easier

Photo from flickr

A Reader's Community

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Queensland, Australia
A Reader's Community is a place to find ideas, information, resources and recommendations about Reader's Workshop.

This Blog has five main types of posts.

About Reader's Workshop - information about Reader's Workshop in my classroom and how it works

Reader's Workshop Tools - resources you can access and use to help you with reader's workshop

Book talks - Book recommendations of two or three books centred around a particular theme

Book letters - in-depth reviews of one particular book

Reader's Workshop Links - Short links lists to help you find more information
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