I recently came across the following image from one of my favorite comics, The Awkward Yeti, by Nick Seluk:
The modes of communication have undergone such dramatic, exponential change in the past couple of decades that it makes sense that communication itself is also undergoing change. But even as language gets sometimes stripped away to basic emojis, it’s significant to examine the enduring principles of powerful word choice.
I expected that this opportunity to blog regularly would bring benefits to my writing over time — if nothing else, at least train words to flow a little more easily as I typed more and more.
But I did not anticipate the powerful lessons about writing that would also come my way, lessons that I can and most certainly will apply when I return to the classroom. They all stem from a place of authentic, raw honesty about what it really means to be in that writing arena.
1 Writing elements and structure are not about ticking off a checklist; they are about making your writing more enjoyable to read. When I skip out on a conclusion on a post, I might have convinced myself at the time that the rest of the content was sufficient and that a conclusion would just be excess. But more often than not, I know that what it really came down to a “good enough” mentality.
When I return to the classroom and we’re breaking down those elements of good writing, we will search together for that sense of completeness. We will analyze how and why pieces do or do not feel quite right, and I will work to help them discover and seek out each of those elements for themselves.
2 “Write only what you alone can write” (Elie Wiesel) Most of us have probably heard some variation of this advice before. But it was only when I really started to take it to heart that I began to understand. If I stuck to writing just what I thought was supposed to go on an educational blog, or if I just wrote about those trending topics all the time, I knew my desire to write anything at all would dry up. The surest way of making writing feel like a burden is to deny it any sense of personal touch. After all, the entire point of writing is connection; if we never connect with what we write ourselves, how can we expect to find meaningful connection with our audience?
I know that in the past, I have spent far too much time trying to help my students prepare for those state writing assessments or otherwise drilling template, soul-less writing. Even if those tests don’t go away, we can still prioritize the notion of identifying and conveying the messages within each unique individual.
3 Trust the authentic writing process. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just follow one linear, well-defined process and produce good writing every time? The above-mentioned state writing assessments would have had me and my students thinking so (and we worked hard to meet all those requirements — 1 thesis statement, 3-4 reasons, 3-4 details per reason, x # of transition key words, and on and on).
The reality is, the authentic writing process requires a lot of trust. Trust that as we live our lives and engage in the things that matter most to each of us, inspiration (those stories only we can tell) will come. Sure, the viciously practical part of me might prefer to have the next 6 blog posts all neatly planned and ready on the assembly line. But if I am to truly discover the rich stories and powerful observations woven into the fabric of real life, then I must engage with real life, compartmentalizing less and engaging more.
I’m far from a perfect blogger or writer now. But I know I can hope for greater capacity and joy in the future as I work to live and write as authentically as possible.
…she will need words that are on a developmentally appropriate, differentiated level.
If the words are on the right level…
…she will want to break them down for patterns, connections, and language concepts.
If she is breaking them down for bigger concepts…
…she will want to know why spelling matters in general.
If you show her why it matters…
…she will want to take ownership over the way she practices it.
If she is practicing spelling with more ownership…
…she will begin to find more autonomy elsewhere in her learning.
This “If You Give A Mouse A Cookie” (by Laura Numeroff) thinking arose from reflecting on how spelling is great example of the need to challenge the status quo.
Spelling has looked the same for decades in many classrooms: everyone gets the same list on Monday, practices copying down the words throughout the week, gets tested on Friday.
This pattern often persists despite all we’ve come to know and continue to learn about spelling instruction and development (see the checklist for evaluating spelling programs on page 35 of this document by D.K. Reed at Center on Instruction).
Some of the most important changes include the following:
Instead of the same words, we should be differentiating. I enjoyed using the program, Words their Way for this purpose, as I was able to assess students within their individual stages of spelling. Quite apart from reaching students’ developmental needs, I also appreciate approaches that do not make spelling a one-size-fits-all situation that unfairly challenges only those who are below “grade level.”
Instead of mandating uniform spelling practice each day, we should be teaching students to recognize how to allocate their word study time. Even when spelling is differentiated, it will still come more easily for some students than others, which results in wasting valuable time. A framework that helped me adopt this approach was Daily 5 (for literacy; Daily 3 for math). It was wonderful to watch my students make informed decisions about their learning time rather than just passively checking everything off the teacher’s list each day.
Instead of focusing on memorization, we should be helping our students break down and investigate each word. This better scaffolds students in their language acquisition, building upon their grasp on patterns in phonology.
When we step back to see an even bigger picture, we see that these changes are not only about better spelling instruction, but about broader 21st century principles including student ownership, inquiry, and personalized learning.
Last month, I followed Pernille Ripp’s 7th grade English class’ progress through a project on refugees. I even pointed to it in a recent post as an example of Twitter’s potential for learning. And on Tuesday, Microsoft shared a beautiful Youtube video of their experience:
After witnessing how all this learning and growing has unfolded, I was saddened to encounter the following comment on the Youtube video:
It’s not the first time we’ve heard this kind of rhetoric, nor will it be the last. The “reading, writing, ‘rithmatic” camp is still alive and well.
However, what those who are of this mindset still don’t understand is that this is English in today’s world.
A world in which current events no longer sit quietly in the morning paper, and instead are loudly debated at all times from the devices in our pockets.
A world in which the negative is amplified and distorted truths go viral.
So when the standards instruct us to “engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions with diverse partners on grade 7 topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly” (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.7.1), is it beyond English instruction to tackle an issue that is very much a part of their lives?
Or when we’re to teach students to “Delineate a speaker’s argument and specific claims, evaluating the soundness of the reasoning and the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence” (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.7.3), is it beyond English instruction to seek out civility and compassion to help bring clarity to current events fraught with misinformation?
The truth is, we can’t just direct our students to the encyclopedia anymore. The volume and quality of the information our students receive every day from the Internet is staggering, and we simply cannot pretend that it does not shape their learning process. Especially since with greater global access comes greater global citizenship. Thus, dramatic is the difference between asking a student from 1990 vs. 2016 to “Trace and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, assessing whether the reasoning is sound and the evidence is relevant and sufficient to support the claims” (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.7.8).
In the complexity of teaching and learning today, 21st century educators know that we are tasked to teach our students how to think, not what to think.
Or, as Pernille put it so well herself at the onset of this project,
“My job is not to make you think a certain way, my job is to make you think. So whatever your opinion may be, all I ask of you is to have one based on fact, rather than what others believe. Keep your ears open and ask a lot of questions. That is the least you can do as the future of this country.”
Keep up the great work, Pernille, and all other teachers dedicated to helping their students make sense of this dynamic and exponentially shifting world!
So embedded are our own culture’s idiosyncrasies that we generally take them for granted. This is particularly true when it comes to our idioms. That’s why, when I came across this list of 40 idioms that don’t translate on TED-Ed, I just knew it would make an intriguing provocation.
Other resources for students inquiring into language might include this animated map of “how Indo-European languages may have evolved:”
Or this video, also from TED-Ed on how our languages evolve (might be a little complex for younger students, but you never know…):
Why do humans use figurative language?
How do you think idioms from certain countries are related to the way of life in that country?
How does language diversity affect our world?
How are human beings connected through language even when we speak different words?
How does becoming more fluent (readers and writers) in our own language help us? How does studying other languages help us?
I used to love Mountain Math and Mountain Language. The spiral review. The simplicity of swapping laminated cards each week. The security of knowing my students were practicing concepts that could show up at the end of year tests.
During Independent Study time, students would grab a fresh answer sheet and try their hand at weekly examples of 20 grammar concepts (ie, parts of speech, dictionary guide words, spelling corrections, syllables), and about 22 math concepts.
However, the summer after my second year of teaching, I began to doubt. Was it worth the sizable chunk of time spent every week? Did it help struggling students to improve? Did it help not-struggling students to grow? Were there better ways to help them with retention? Most importantly, what was the big-picture program design more about: students becoming better readers, writers, and mathematicians, or standardized test drill?
As a fifth grade team, we reflected, and came to realize that while it did have some merits, the program was an opportunity cost for better things. We scrapped it cold turkey and worked together toward more purpose, more thoughtfulness, more curative effort, and more reflection.
What Changed in Language Arts
I was already committed by that point to wrap-ups for most lessons, but I became even more acutely aware of their necessity. Wrap-ups became a golden time for connection-making and conclusion-recording. I began to be more mindful in helping my students highlight specific concepts that occurred naturally in our lessons.
With the extra space, I got a second large bulletin board installed on my wall, and designated one for reading workshop and one for writing workshop. As we shared our connections and defined new concepts (especially during wrap-ups), we would record and display them on our bulletin board throughout each unit. Not only did this serve as a helpful visual reminder as we built upon unit concepts, but the connections to grammar ideas became more organic–which resulted in greater student ownership and retention.
Independent Study Shift:
Our school’s practice of dedicating about an hour of independent language arts study time underwent a gradual transformation over the next few years as we worked to identify better ways for students to practice language arts while teachers met with small reading groups. Eventually, we realized that students could learn how to prioritize that time themselves, if only we gave them the tools to do so. And so we adopted the Daily Five, which helped us lay out a better structure in teaching students to make purposeful choices for how they spend their time. Choices included read to self, read with someone, word work, work on writing, and listen to reading. I loved the shift in the mentality even more than the shift in the program selection.
Mini, teacher-designed Grammar Practice:
We started to design and select our own mini-grammar practices wherever we noticed students could use extra practice. When I went on extended parental leave, this was still an imperfect process, but I was excited about the direction and potential for growth.
What Changed in Math
Because we did not rely as heavily on the Mountain Math program, things did not shift quite as dramatically in that subject. Our most tangible change was implementing mini formative assessment quizzes. This involved creating small, two to four question quizzes each day based on the previous day’s study, often throwing in one bonus review question. As a result, we became more deeply and continually aware of the class’ understanding, and became better equipped to course-correct as needed.
What Changed in Me
In the end, this was a story about shifting ownership–both for my students and for me. I became more aware my students’ needs because I did not just rely on a program to “cover” concepts. I became more confident in my students’ abilities to choose what mattered most for their own learning–especially as I searched out meaningful tools to help them learn how. The bar was definitely raised for us all, but I have found it to be one of the most worthwhile changes in my teaching career so far.
If you are thinking of adopting Pam Allyn’s Core Ready series for teaching the Common Core English Language Arts standards, be sure to check out our review based on our experience with the program!
As teachers, we know that it’s difficult to truly evaluate a program until we’ve actually used it for a solid time-period. At the same time, we also know it’s not often practical just to try out programs, due to financial and time constraints. For this reason, I’d like to share my experience with teaching using Pam Allyn’s Core Ready books, in the hopes that it assists teachers considering their implementation. My fifth grade team decided to adopt the series this past year since we wanted a Common Core-aligned reading and writing workshop program. We had previously been using The Complete Year in Reading & Writing: Year 5 by Pam Allyn with much success, so we had high hopes for the new series. I was personally able to teach using all of the books this year except The Journey to Meaning,due to maternity leave.
Each of the four books have 1 “lesson set” or unit per grade, which includes:
10 lessons each for reading and writing (reading and writing to be taught simultaneously)
1 Language Lesson (to be taught at some point within the lesson set)
Appendix of resources, including graphic organizers and rubrics
Grades 3-5 Books (can be taught in any order you prefer):
The Power to Persuade: Opinion & Argument
Focuses on strategies on what makes writing persuasive
Main published piece for 5th grade: a persuasive text
The Road to Knowledge: Information & Research
Focuses on how to gather research, note-taking skills, and how to correctly cite others’ work
Main published piece for 5th grade: an informational text; topic chosen by students
The Journey to Meaning: Comprehension & Critique
Focuses on reading poetry & essays to analyze themes, subjects, and author point of view
Main published piece for 5th grade: analytical essay
The Shape of Story: Yesterday & Today
Focuses on various types and components of stories, including character development and conflict, with an emphasis on fantasy for the 5th grade lessons
Main published piece for 5th grade: a narrative fantasy story
Other Corresponding Resources
Be Core Ready: Powerful, Effective Steps to Implementing and Achieving the Common Core State Standards: Detailed introduction both to the Core Ready series and to the ELA Common Core Standards themselves.
PDToolKit: An online resource in which you can access additional resources for the lessons
♥Common Core-aligned, vertically and horizontally!
This is obviously a major attraction to this series. Now that the Common Core has simplified the focuses of ELA standards, it can be difficult to revise your current ELA program to be completely Common Core aligned–especially across an entire school! The beauty of the Core Ready books is that not only is it completely Common Core-aligned within your own grade level, but it masterfully builds learning between grades.
♥Simple structure in each lesson (Warm up, Teach, Try, Clarify, Practice, Wrap-up)
I enjoyed this framework both because it facilitates plenty of guided student application, and because it allowed me to easily divide up the lessons into multiple days (if we needed to break it up, we would often end with “Clarify” one day, and begin with “Practice” the next).
♥Fosters teacher authenticity
The series thoroughly embraces the 21st century view of teachers as readers and writers growing right alongside students (rather than as wizened experts or sources of knowledge). A perfect illustration of this approach lies in the fact that as students create a published piece in each lesson set, the books also encourage teachers to do the same. The benefits here are reciprocal; first, it builds in authenticity as teachers model their own warts-and-all literary process. As a result, students glimpse the true nature of literary learning: not a neat, manufactured, step-by-step process, but one that is messy, purposeful, and beautiful.
♥Student-centered –> Plenty of room for inquiry!
Rather than teachers directly pointing out literary concepts, it encourages students to discover the concepts themselves within texts. The lessons also constantly invite students to consider their own literary backgrounds, to identify their personal inspiration, and to make purposeful choices as unique readers and writers.
♥Encourages critical thinking and metacognition
The lessons are designed to continually challenge students to ask, “WHY?” For instance, any time students are asked to find examples of literary concepts in texts, they are also nearly always asked to locate text evidence that defends their reasoning. This makes for lively student discussions as they share their personal analyses. Additionally, every lesson set involves student reflection, and I definitely saw growth in my students as they regularly examined their own thinking and decision-making processes.
During a webinar early in the school year, I asked Pam Allyn and Debbie Lera whether 40 lessons would be enough to span the entire school year, as we worried this seemed like more of a supplemental program. They assured me that many lessons would likely take more than a day to teach, and they were absolutely right; particularly when students gathered research or revised, some lessons took more than a week! Additionally, our grade kept a couple small units from previous years, which we found easy to incorporate alongside the Core Ready series.
♥Encourages digital literacy
For the informational text unit, my students turned essays into multi-media blog posts. For the fantasy narrative, my students created illustrated Storybirds. The Core Ready books are packed with suggestions for engaging and natural technology integration.
This is part of the reason that each lesson can be extended well beyond a day. They include:
Ideas for both high-tech & low-tech classrooms
Suggestions to bridge concepts for English Language Learning students
Suggestions for Speaking & Listening development
Concrete ideas for formative assessments throughout the lessons.
Fantastic Appendix of resources and rubrics
♥Few anchor texts required
If you previously used the Complete Year in Reading and Writing books, you understand the financial strain of programs that require many anchor texts. While this series does recommend a few anchor texts, it more frequently gives suggestions for online-accessible texts!
Of course, dedicating time for daily reading and writing is essential. However, this program requires at least 40 minutes each for the reading and writing lessons. You will also likely want to find time to incorporate guided reading groups, and while it’s been suggested that these groups can be run during the “practice” component of each reading lesson, that simply isn’t always practical. For one thing, it keeps you from one-on-one interactions available during their practice time. Plus, that practice time doesn’t happen the same way every day since some individual lessons are stretched over multiple days, which makes it very difficult to predictably schedule guided reading within the reading/writing workshop time.
♦Language Standards not fully integrated
Throughout the 4 books for 5th grade, some of the Language standards are only covered once–and a couple, not at all (Standards 4 and 5). While a wonderful characteristic of the Core Ready books is that each lesson masterfully integrates a variety ELA standards, this can also make it difficult to keep track of which areas need to be supplemented if they aren’t included. For how time-consuming this program is, I found myself wishing that the entire ELA standards were covered so we didn’t feel we needed an additional grammar program to provide complete Language instruction and spiraling practice.
♦Teacher talk can be lengthy
Each phase of each lesson includes detailed sample teacher talk, which is positive in that it gives teachers clear ideas on the lesson’s intended direction. However, it can get quite long–the “Teach” component in particular. For this reason, the lengthy teacher talk only becomes a “con” when teachers don’t realize it’s essential to adapt it to their own timetable and student needs.
The strengths of this series clearly outweigh the few drawbacks. I would highly recommend these books to any teacher, especially if they are looking for a way to naturally build reading and writing skills in an interdependent, authentic manner!