10 Jul

Best Practices

I’ve been using a lot of the research offered by Reading Rockets to shape what I’m doing in my classroom.  Specifically, The 6 T’s of Effective Elementary Literacy Instruction has been transformational for my classroom.  Any time I feel frustrated or like I’m losing my way, I reread it.  I can’t even begin to say that I do all 6 of these on a regular basis, but it’s a good reminder of what I’m working towards.

Philosophically, I tend to take a constructivist’s approach to teaching.  I always try to give students opportunities for “Productive Struggle”.  Ellie Cowen explains this quite well in Harnessing the Power of the Productive Struggle.  The problem is, most people who explore this topic focus on math, as though learning reading is substantially different from learning math.  And while I don’t have research to quote you (which is very much unlike me), that idea just doesn’t make sense to me.  Take a look at what Cowen writes about productive struggle:

Students are encouraged to seek solutions that are grounded in logic and prior knowledge and that make sense to them, instead of imitating methods used by their teacher or peers.

Some things about reading require imitation.  I doubt many of our students are going to start pronouncing the symbol “a” the way we do unless we tell them.  At the same time, such is the same with the structure and symbols of math.  The part of math that comes very naturally to students is the relationships and connections.  I would argue that relationships and connections in reading also come very naturally.  And while the basics of phonics are certainly valuable, those skills don’t occupy the majority of our lessons in the upper elementary grades.  Instead, we’re busy teaching students about main idea, cause and effect, and comparison.  All these are just relationships.  For example,

My 3yo and I are driving down the street sometime this winter, and she sees a cat on the railing of a house we pass.  She points it out and tells me that the cat is cold.  Being a teacher, I ask her why the cat was cold?  There was a very long pause here as she puzzled over this.  Think of this as that productive struggle I referenced earlier.  She was working in her “zone of proximal development”.  And then she decided, “Because she doesn’t have a coat on.”

Cause and effect is a relationship we develop over time.  My 3yo has figured out that when she stands up in her chair, she goes to timeout.  She doesn’t do it anymore.  Now it’s just a matter of giving her the language to describe this.  I recognize that many of our students don’t have parents able to ask these same questions, whether through a lack of education or a lack of time.  Still, I have never had a student walk into my classroom who doesn’t have at least some background knowledge on cause and effect (and I would argue on any other relationship we learn about in 3rd grade).  Every child, whether we like it or not, has learned that misbehavior causes them to get attention.  Cause and effect.

And so this past year, I grew frustrated that all the experts seemed to prescribe something very different in terms of “best practices” for math than for reading.  In math, students are supposed to explore and discover the world for themselves, gradually broadening their understanding through a series of purposefully chosen tasks.  On the flipside, though, in reading, students are supposed to listen to their teachers do a task, then copy that same task.  Over and over again.  And then these same experts look around with puzzled faces when our reading scores are so much lower than our math scores.  If students brains develop the way constructivists say they do (and I would tend to agree), then this approach need not be isolated to mathematics instruction.

That said, my struggle has always been “but then… how do you actually do that?”  And while I’m still developing, I do think I’ve come up with an attempt at just that.  Many of these components were gradually introduced into my reading block this past year and have been improved as we do them.  I’m really excited to implement the very best version (so far) of my reading block from the beginning this coming school year.

So this is the first in a series of posts exploring the different components of my reading block.  I teach writing more formally than I’ll discuss here, but I also use Lucy Calkins pretty faithfully, so I don’t have a lot of new ideas there.  I also won’t be discussing guided reading in a lot of depth because I’m still a baby at guided reading.  Here’s an overview of what I will be talking about, though.

Inferencing Warm-Up: This is how we begin out day, building off a simple activity I give the kids for morning work.  The kids love it because they know that as long as they support their answers with the text, they’re never wrong.

Close Read: The “bread and butter” of my reading block.  This anchors us each and every day, and we let the text guide our learning.  This has really helped us all become lovers of reading (myself included) which translates to success in a thousand others way.

Quick Write: A time to apply a task in a bite size chunk.  We never spend more than 5 minutes on this, and I set a timer to focus the kids.  I’m pretty flexible with the kids being allowed to get up and sharpen pencils, get a drink of water, etc.  Quick writes are the exception to this; they are for writing… the whole time.  It’s hard to train the kids on this, but having short bursts of productivity and focus really work well for us.  Afterall, being 100% focused on the task at hand is impossible to manage for any period of time.

Task:  This is a chance for students to explore or practice a new skill.  It should be accessible to ALL students regardless of skill level.

Independent Work:  Here’s where the students apply what they’ve been learning and practice old skills.  This is also a time for targeted intervention and extension activities when they finish their other work.

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