Monday, November 26, 2012

Universal Design for Learning

How do I reach all students? Students in our heterogeneous classrooms bring many distinct challenges to learning.

One very important way to address the challenges is to consider them from the planning phase of the lesson. Rather than only relying on differentiating instruction as a response to student understanding of lessons. Universal Design for Learning is just such a process. The Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Guidelines 2.0 is an interactive assistant for thinking about and planning for individual student needs as we develop our lessons.The goal is the success of all students in an engaging and motivating learning climate.

In fact, the Model Curriculum Unit Project has used UDL as a lesson-planning component. Since the standards in math and ELA do not address the specifics of instruction for special populations, UDL has provided that support.

Access the guidelines document at The guidelines were developed by the Center for Applied Technology (CAST). You may wish to check out the very informative CAST site at In the meantime, the districts involved in our Southeast DSAC Leadership Network will be invited to use the tools as they plan units and lessons and to support one another through the Network as they work toward providing the means for development of resourceful and knowledgeable learners who are strategically goal-directed and purposefully motivated.

Researchers (like Nonie Lesaux of Harvard) and practitioners (like consultant, Regie Routman) are realizing and talking about how language and literacy development are connected to the development of self-regulation and executive function. UDL makes it a point to bring these two critical areas together. The Guidelines document is an indispensable reference when planning successful lessons with learners of all ages.

Questions: Engagement, Inquiry, and Standards

Questions are job 1! ELA and Literacy Standard 1 for reading is essentially read closely and cite evidence. It begins in the earliest grades with learning to ask questions proficiently.

Everyone - students, teachers, administrators, and those who prepare future teachers need to learn to ask questions proficiently. Not every question is worthy of being asked or considered. However, questions are at the heart of all important discoveries.

In a recent ASCD SmartBrief (which by the way you may wish to subcribe to these pithy and timely short reports at, John Barell recounts the story of 1944 Nobel Laureate in Physics, Isidore I. Rabi, who claimed his mother made him a scientist without actually meaning to do so. "Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn asked her child after school, 'So, did you learn anything today?' But not my mother. She asked a different question, 'Izzy,' she would say, 'did you ask a good question today?' That difference - asking good questions - made me become a scientist!"

John Barell thinks, "...that difference could transform education worldwide without costing a dime." And I agree.

Educators ask many questions. Without changing a thing, try to record the number of questions you ask in your day. Then ask yourself are those questions productive?

Notice, I refer to proficient questions above, not good ones because the goal of all the standards is independence and proficiency at the grade level (and I suggest at the work level, as well). Proficient questions - those chosen from among all that are asked or available, are what move the inquiry cycle from wonder to action as research, are what make the difference between the status quo and great discoveries, are what change our directions in History and in the present with historical results (think Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr.).

Begin with close, but entirely objective observation - what do you notice?  All observations are recorded. Observations may be of an artifact, a visual representation (photo, painting/drawing, film), an audio representation (music, speech, audio program), or a written text. From those observations, what do you wonder? From the wondering, which are the questions that will lead to as yet undiscovered knowledge or understanding.

How will you decide from among the questions available in school texts? Think fewer and more productive. Productive questions must be linked to inference that can be supported by citing the text, or to synthesis of ideas from several texts rather than to obvious statements or unsupported opinions. Choose the questions that make everyone think at the highest levels. Students will need to know that the questions are designed to engender thinking rather than to identify the "right answer". Even in the math standards, the emphasis is on thinking, not identifying the obvious answer.

How will you teach students to develop proficient questions and eventually to do so independently? These are the questions that experienced learners like us ask ourselves all the time. Throughout the grade levels standard 1 in reading is about asking questions - How do you know that (cite evidence)? What did the author mean by...? Which propositions are linked and how do they link with what we studied previously?

Harvard Education Press has published, Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions by Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana (check    In this book, the authors argue that teaching students to develop questions is the most essential skill for learning. This seems to me to have been a skill that has been neglected, not only by our K-12 educators but by their teachers as well. Are the schools of education focused on teaching the art of formulating and following through on proficient questions, as well as the art of teaching the development of productive, independent questions?

Over the years, a number of researchers and authors have taken up this topic. However, the sexier topics always seem to win out - teaching young writers, appreciating Shakespeare, engagement and motivation. In my opinion, the classroom that only asks  thought-provoking questions, that helps students develop questions worth pursuing with research and inquiry, and that promotes academic discourse that proceeds from generative questions, is enthusiastically engaging and motivating.

Here are your challenges:
  1. Examine your own questions and questioning. Challenge yourself to only ask questions that demand higher order thinking - lead to research, inquiry, synthesis, or inference.
  2. Teach your students how to develop productive questions and to gradually make it an independent and proficient habit.
Let me know how it goes. It is a good way to get even better acquainted with the 2011 ELA and Literacy Standards.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Literacy Assessment Connections for the 2012-13 School Year

In accordance with the 2011 ELA Framework, students in grades 4 will be assessed in one of the following modes: narrative, expository, or opinion. Students in grade 7 will be assessed in one of the following modes: narrative, expository, or argument. For instructional support, consult pages 27-28 Download PDF Document Download MS WORD Document of the ELA Framework for grade 4 and pages 54-56 Download PDF Document Download MS WORD Document of ELA Framework for grade 7. The scoring guide and rubric will remain the same.

last updated: August 15, 2012

Above is from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education's web page on assessable standards for MCAS for this school year. It is also the message delivered as part of the Commissioner's Welcome Letter for this school year. The gist of it is that the expectation is that teachers are using the 2011 ELA/Literacy Framework exclusively. In doing so, they are emphasizing three modes of writing - argument, expository/explanation, and narrative - with students throughout the school year. In the spirit of the standards, each of these writing modes is connected to reading some text, preferably more than one. In the case of classroom instructional activities, the reading should involve opportunities for academic conversations as well. Based on the reading and discourse, students would be prompted to write in one or more of the three modes.

It is not my understanding that the MCAS test itself will look very different from the way it has looked in the past. However, this is a first step toward an assessment that reflects the 2011 standards. I hope that you share my belief in our teachers and their students. That belief is certain that robust instructional practices that provide lots of opportunities for students to write in all three of these modes, will adequately prepare the students to respond proficiently.

As the MCAS years have rolled on, the tendency to narrow the focus and in turn, the curriculum has severely limited students' perspectives with regard to performance and creativity. In addition, some students who do well on the MCAS are so MCAS-focused that they fail to perform well in other assessment situations - the SAT and ACT arenas, for instance.

So, as we start the new school year, we have an exciting opportunity to widen the focus and increase our own as well as our students' engagement with our 21st Century literacy standards.  Happy new school year!

Monday, August 20, 2012

Starting School with CCSS

As we start the new school year, it is important to plan right from the start to work differently this year. First, consider how you will facilitate academic conversations. Furniture arrangement is crucial. Students cannot talk to one another if desks and chairs create barriers. In addition, you will want to think about ways to easily provide changes in groupings. One way, is to set up the room so that everyone can see everyone else, for instance in a U-shape. By leaving some spaces every few seats, students can move chairs inside to create other formations. This arrangement provides respectful, whole-class discussions - a way for everyone to communicate with one another. Other ideas can be found in Content-Area Conversations by Fisher, Frey, and Rothenberg. Whatever you decide, make the reasons and goals clear to the students.

The Speaking and Listening Strand (S/L) standards require classrooms to develop many ways to promote academic conversations. The range of conversations includes pairs, small groups and whole-class opportunities. However, the basics must be taught; students do not come prepared to have quality conversations. The rigor and communicative skills needed for routine academic conversations must be taught, assessed, and reinforced. PARCC has said the S/L standards will be assessed and will count as part of the summative assessment. All the more reason to get good at teaching them as soon as possible.

Today, PARCC has released prototypes of assessment items for review and for use as tools. Review the item prototypes and other PARCC resources associated with them at

Prepare for and plan for a success-filled school year!

Fisher, D., Frey, N., Rothenberg, C. (2008). Content-area conversations: How to plan discussion-based lessons for diverse learners. Alexandria, VA. ASCD.

Friday, July 27, 2012

New Thoughts on How to Use the Standards - Writing

Writing has taken center stage in the new standards. When you study the PARCC Model Curriculum Frameworks ( or the documents they have put out for Publishers, you see very clearly the relationship of reading, writing, and discourse to the expectations for success in our new standards-based classrooms.

Look at the anchor standards for writing. When planning, choose from among the first three standards to provide students with the reason to write. Part of thinking about that reason is to imagine and plan for the audience that will read the argument, explanation, or narrative. Students should be writing like a reader and testing their written thoughts through that lens as they write. It will be easier to do so, when the audience is someone other than the teacher. Researchers tell us that providing authentic reasons and audiences for student writing enhances engagement and motivation (Duke & Bennett-Armistead, 2003; Irwin, Meltzer, Mickler, Phillips, & Dean, 2009).

Next, integrate one or more of the grade-appropriate standards from among 4 - 6. Use these to decide which of the elements of the process of writing you will be teaching. Process is subsumed under the more important considerations of purpose and audience. Process is not the reason for writing anymore than fluency is the reason for reading. The elements of process support writing comprehension. We have in the recent past been focused on process, sometimes to the detriment of purpose.

Match the elements that you have chosen to research, standards 7 - 9. Look at the PARCC model - research goes hand-in-hand with that reading-writing connection - always. The implication here is that writing calls for the reading, listening, studying, and/or exploration of several texts (used in the broadest sense). Even writing a narrative calls for exploration of either the style/format of several mentor texts, or the subject matter of several like texts.

Students should not be asked to write merely on the basis of a single prompt, such as, "Tell about a hero in your life." Students may be asked to do this after they have read/explored a number of written depictions of heroes but not without that support. This is another way in which the rigor of the classroom experience has been elevated by these standards.

The goal is Standard 10. It presumes that many experiences with writing, for many reasons, every day will lead to flexibility and grade-appropriate maturity as a writer. The call for routine writing for many purposes and in many situations puts writing to learn, as well as to demonstrate learning, at the heart of classroom instruction.

Though the standards separate three main reasons to write, the mature writer flexibly uses all three in many situations. Consider a famous speech or written treatise such as Lincoln's Gettysburg Address or Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, each contains argument supported by explanation and anecdote. Mature writers incorporate all three purposes seamlessly into their writings and make choices based on the audience they imagine will read or listen to the work. Our high school students should be able to write that way, gradually demonstrating a flexible understanding of how the purposes interact and support one another.   

Duke, N., & Bennett-Armistead, S. (2003). Reading & writing informational text in the primary grades: Research-based practices. New York. Scholastic.
Irwin, J., Meltzer, J., Meckler, M., Phillips, M., Dean, N. (2009). Meeting the challenge of adolescent literacy: Practical ideas for literacy leaders. Newark, DE. IRA.

Monday, July 9, 2012

New Thoughts for How to Use the Standards

The Massachusetts Curriculum Framework for English Language Arts and Literacy that incorporates the Common Core State Standards presents an entirely different way of looking at and using standards from what we have had in the past. As we move into this year of full implementation of the standards it is important to be clear regarding how teachers should use the standards, what structures best support teacher professional development, and what the true implications of the new standards mean for instructional practices and resource decisions.

Let's look at these three big ideas in chunks. Standards are learning goals, not descriptions of instructional routines (though the close reading standard comes close), not strategies for teaching or learning, and none stands alone. The standards build upon one another and call for integration within the strand - reading, writing, speaking and listening, language, and foundational skills - and across the strands - reading, speaking and listening, and writing - consistently work together and are dependent upon one another for learning as well as for demonstrating what has been learned.

How to Use the Standards: Reading
The ten anchor standards set goals for reading comprehension of informational text, literature, and content. Standard 1 - close reading and Standard 10 - reading proficiently and independently move across the year throughout all reading work in every grade and content. Close reading calls for choosing important and rich texts. This factor cannot be stressed enough. Every text is not worthy of a close read but every unit should be planned around a text worthy of the time and attention necessary for a close read and half the time that text must be informational - in every literacy (ELA/reading) class at every grade level.

If you have your Framework available, please turn to p. 13. Under Key Ideas and Details, write beside Standards 1-3, "Use for first read". For the close reading text that you have chosen, students will read to determine what is in the text, what central ideas or themes and how events or characters develop over time within the text, citing evidence from the text. Under Craft and Structure, mark Standards 4 - 6, "Use for second read." After discussion (Speaking and Listening Standard 1), students may be asked to go back into the chosen text to interpret, analyze, and/or judge it based on word/phrase meanings, structure, relationships, and/or author's point of view, purpose, or style. Under Integration of Knowledge and Ideas, mark Standards 7 - 9, "Use for third read." Again, after opportunities for discussion (S/L.1), students may return to the text for further analysis. This time gathering additional evidence to support analysis and investigating additional texts for comparisons or additional knowledge on a particular topic.

If you have studied the PARCC Model Content Frameworks, then you will recognize the clear references to reading connected to writing - marking the text, taking notes, analysis and synthesis, connected to speaking and listening - discussion and evidence-gathering, connected to research - finding additional texts "presented in diverse media and formats". At this point, students may be ready to present their conclusions either in writing or some other presentation format, either as an argument or an explanation with sufficient and relevant evidence that comes directly from the main text as well as the supporting texts. An alternative demonstration would use entirely new texts and discussions to demonstrate the use of all content and skills learned to analyze/synthesize information and support it with evidence independently and proficiently.

The expectation is that all of this work will be done using challenging texts. Those challenging texts will involve Lexile levels starting in Grade 2 (see Appendix A) that are higher than those we have previously associated with the grade levels. That means that K teachers and first grade teachers have two very important factors to consider: students need information and higher expectations for learning to read, participate in academic conversations, and write will result in greater success. Teachers who have used readability assessments in the past may or may not have realized their limitations. They did not take the knowledge of the reader into consideration and they were not normed for reliability. In addition the plan for accessing reading levels - independent, instructional, and frustration - from 1946, was invented and never proven by research to be a true measurement - no norms for reliability and/or validity.

That said, teachers will have students at all levels of decoding/fluency strengths and all levels of knowledge of nature and the world. The implication is at least the recognition that there will be a period of adjustment that will require that all teachers help students to step up to the challenges. At best, the implications include a reorganization of learning expectations and outcomes so that knowledge acquisition is equal to basic reading development in the earliest grades. In addition, there will need to be many candid conversations among educators and an understanding that everyone has a critical role to play in the success of all students.  Teachers will need to learn how to scaffold those challenging texts without reading them to students or telling them what the texts say. Redefining the roles of educators and students at all grade levels and in all content disciplines is a large part of our work for the next year.

Next time: How to Use the Writing Standards

References and Resources:
Shanahan, T. (2011, August 11). Rejecting instructional level theory. Retrieved from
Shanahan, T. (2011, October 13). Are we going to lower the fences or teach kids to climb. Reading Today Online. Retrieved from
Shanahan, T. (2009, August 21). The problem with guided reading. Retrieved from
Shanahan, T. (1983). The informal reading inventory and the instructional level: The study that never took place. In L. Gentile, M. L. Kamil, & J. Blanchard (Eds.), Reading research revisited,(pp. 577–580). Columbus, OH: Merrill.

Monday, May 14, 2012

A New Look at Summer Reading

Above is the link to an article entitled, Summer Reading Loss, written by Maryann Mraz and Timothy Rasinski. This article and another available at IRA Inspire, April, 2012, a monthly production of the International Reading Association, were two of the four read by my colleagues (Regional Literacy Specialists and Office of Literacy Staff) and me for our last, bimonthly conversation.

Last Friday we had a lively discussion of summer reading loss experienced by many students and what may be done to ameliorate it.  The Mraz and Rasinski article reminds us of the staggering statistics related to summer loss particularly as it relates to disadvantaged students. Reviewing empirical studies that involved 40,000 students, results were concerning. "in a single academic year, this (summer loss) decline resulted in an estimated three-month achievement gap between more advantaged and less advantaged students. Between grades 1 and 6, the potential cumulative impact of this achievement gap could compound to 1.5 years' worth of reading development lost in the summer months alone (Cooper, Nye, Charlton,Lindsay, & Greathouse, 1996)." These data and those revealed by several other studies are 26 or more years old. This is not news. Teachers have been talking about this problem as long as I have been a student!

Yet, the suggestions and activities provided for summer reading for students are the same old tried but unsuccessful activities that have never made a difference. The suggestions in these articles don't go quite far enough. They hint at some of the right directions but I think they fall short of interesting a critical mass of people in reading and supporting the reading of young students. Let's put aside the idea of a longer school year for now. Even if philosophically disposed to do so, in the current economic climate, it seems impossible.

This is the 21st Century, a great time for some new ideas. What do you do when reading? Do you ever tell someone about the ideas you encounter? Do you join people who are reading the same things to exchange ideas and broaden your viewpoint and that of your colleagues? Why not set up opportunities for students to do so as well.

During the summer, perhaps students could be part of a blog to exchange thoughts on books or topics that they are reading in common. Perhaps next year's teacher would enjoy reading the blog entries and certainly the students would be excited by the opportunity to impress and get to know the new teacher. By putting informational books or topics on a list, we could address the knowledge deficit that we all agree that our students experience. This could involve providing students with sites where they could read the information; maybe even become involved in some activities related to the reading.

Our community reads the same book in the fall every year. Perhaps it would be more helpful to do so in the summer. Students could be given choices (always associated with motivation because motivation is intrinsic not generated by carrots or sticks) of what to read and when they got back to school could be given the chance to join a group of students and adults who had read the same texts (books, magazines, Web sites etc.) to enjoy a discussion. The Inspire piece talks about a Literacy Day to start the year complete with invitations to authors of the suggested books. I would eliminate the required presentations by students and just enjoy the chance to hear from authors and ask them questions. This would make the reading-writing connection in the best way possible.

One very important element is making the books, magazines, Web links etc. available to the students. Many families don't have access to book stores or libraries. It isn't always as easy as we think it is. However, we have lots of resources to draw on - parent organizations, community businesses (particularly banks), community organizations - Rotary, your local reading council, your own district's partnerships. With donations, we could put texts into the hands of every young reader.

We have known about this problem for a long time. Time to use our creativity and famous determination and solve this problem with 21st Century solutions. After all this is an investment in our own work as well. How much time would we save in the fall if we started the year with all students ready with skills in tact and imagination revved up to speed with new knowledge and wonderings in their heads? We have time if we start to plan now. How about it?

Monday, April 23, 2012

Current Events

There are many things going on in Massachusetts education right now. Most of them connect to literacy instruction and learning either directly or indirectly. So, I thought I would take some time to help my region be up-to-date.

By now, most of you are aware of the RETELL (Rethinking Equity and Teaching of English Language Learners) initiative. Information is available at on the Department's Web site. There you will find information on the SEI (Sheltered English Immersion) Endorsement and the latest recommendations with regard to current and past Category training. The public comment period on RETELL ended Friday and the Board of Education will vote on proposed regulations at the April meeting. Information on the Board is available on the Home Page of the Department's Web site as well. WIDA (World-Class Instructional  Design and Assessment) is expected to be able to be put in place in the 2012-2013 school year. WIDA aligns with the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and therefore with our new Framework for ELA and Literacy. More than that, WIDA provides academic language instruction in Math, science, and social studies as well as social and instructional language. Keep up-to-date on time lines and trainings at the Web site above or check out WIDA at

Our Race to the Top (RttT) project for developing model curriculum units with embedded performance-based assessments met and worked for two days during the first week in April. Members from schools and districts signed recommitment letters while a second cohort of educators was being recruited from member-districts. There is a full week session scheduled for August and in the meantime, content specialists and experts from our partner states will review the work so far with an eye to providing valuable feedback. The group with whom I worked has been diligent and collaborative, making good progress and with the unit complete, is putting the finishing touches on the lesson plans. It has been exciting to make visible the literacy work involved in the science units based on our literacy standards for the content disciplines.

Enhancing Content Learning with Disciplinary Literacy, Grades 6-12 is a session designed for district staff responsible for implementing/training others to consider how the literacy standards for the content disciplines have implications for all subject-area instruction. They are being offered through the Readiness Centers throughout the state. No dates are announced yet for the Southeast but you may find information at I will send out notices when the Southeast dates are arranged.
I hope you are all following the progress of PARCC (Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Career) at You may wish to sign up for periodic email updates. Currently, ESE is working on the application process for Massachusetts PARCC Educator Leader Fellow Team of 24 K-16 educators. These educators will work with PARCC, ESE and DHE (Department of Higher Ed) to learn everything there is to know about PARCC resources and assessments. They will then disseminate that information within Massachusetts. I expect to know more next week - stay tuned.
ESE has decided to work with USED (US Department of Ed) to develop curriculum maps for the new standards in math and ELA. An RFQ has been posted to identify a provider for professional development, based on the USED model, for the next two years. These opportunities will combine face-to-face as well as webinar venues.

Our regional literacy network meetings for Grant 738 - Literacy Partnership Grant - will be held on April 30 and May 21. This message should have been received by the district grant contact.

Original Message:
Dear Literacy Partnership Colleagues,

We hope you enjoyed the statewide Literacy Partnership event on April 3. We are looking forward to seeing you at the regional sessions. In these sessions, participants will continue their work on reading comprehension in K-3 with experienced presenters focusing in breakout sessions on specific areas such as oral language instruction, the reading/writing connection and informational text. Regional meetings will focus on these topics in both sessions. As you know, both meetings in your region are a requirement for all PK-12 Literacy Professional Development Partnership Grant recipients. Please register for the events in your region. 
As always, we appreciate your commitment to your work with your PK-12 Literacy Professional Development Partnership Grant. Should you have any questions about the upcoming meetings, please feel free to contact Dorothy Earle of Jane Myers. Dot can be reached at 781-338-6265 or Jane can be reached at Questions on how to register online should be directed to Alexia Cribbs at 781-338-3581 or

Regional sessions will be held from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at:
Holiday Inn, 700 Myles Standish Blvd, Taunton, MA ~ April 30; May 21
The agenda for each event will be:
8:30-8:50 Welcome
8:55-11:30 Breakout Sessions; 11:30-12:30 Facilitated, guided discussion.
Dorothy Earle, Office of Literacy Massachusetts Department of Elementary & Secondary Education 75 Pleasant Street, Malden, MA 02148 781-338-6265,
 If you are not a 738 Grant recipient and wish to attend please let me know and I will check on availability.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Come Back to Comprehension

Usually you would tweet from a conference, but today I will blog from the Statewide Literacy Partnership Conference. Sharon Taberski is the keynote speaker. At our table, the comments keep going back and forth among the participants - sometimes agreeing with Sharon and sometimes taking exception to all or part of her ideas.

We all agree that making meaning is the most important goal of reading and listening. Comprehension requires the use of a constellation of skills and strategies that the brain connects to previously acquired knowledge, to make sense of what is read or heard. In addition, we add the new knowledge to our store of background knowledge. Sometimes we gain knowledge from life experiences, sometimes from reading and listening.

Why do we ask students to predict before they read? Do we predict before we see a movie? We may make an assumption before we spend money on a movie but it is not a requirement to make a prediction about the movie in order to enjoy it. I think we should teach students right from the beginning to think about what they already know about a topic before a reading/listening experience, but more importantly, to generate their own questions to see whether or not the author answers those questions. Sometimes we read to find out something we did not already know.

Watching a video to illustrate the DRTA (Directed Reading Thinking activity), my table mates and I were having a hard time sitting still. "When do the students get to read the book?" one said. Routines that the teacher was using, set up winners and losers - those who can get classmates to agree with them; those who cannot. After a long discussion about the topic, they finally look at the Table of Contents. Next they looked at the pictures. By this time the students were having trouble sitting still and there had been several opportunities for students to take their classmates off on tangents. Meanwhile, one of the students was reading the book surreptitiously under the table. Isn't that the point? The children need to read.

Next Sharon illustrated her use of "talk moves". She pointed out text in the book and the need to get students to pay attention to words that limit - some, all, never etc. She pointed out that she mentioned to the students what "good readers" do. Can we ban the phrase "good readers"? I have already done so for me. We are all readers - some very experienced and others not so experienced. If there are good readers, there must be bad readers. There are no bad readers.

Q: "How does your philosophy fit with RtI and working with struggling learners?" A: "I don't know anything about RtI. Strugglers need more time, more good instruction, more of the good stuff, need to read voluminously - books that are just right. It's not that complicated. We will read the complex text to them" ME: It is that complicated! The students need to learn to read complex texts - that's the whole point of the new standards.

Q: "How do you assess background knowledge? A: "I don't think you do. We need a new orientation. We need to take seriously our job of bringing content into reading and reading into content area instruction." ME: Another complicated idea that needs careful investigation and support for its implementation. We do need more content in what we ask young readers to consider. Background knowledge is not one thing. It depends on the knowledge area.

Sharon walked us through Hart and Risley. It is important to know/consider your audience. This audience, I think, have seen this many times. We need answers, solutions, our schools (and families) need help with this, and the economy in Massachusetts and in our country is only getting more challenging for more people.

What can we do?
  • use rich, robust language; teachers are models all day long [purposefully or not] (Johnston, 2004; Kegan & Lahey, 2001)
  • provide children with the beautiful language of good books (see Appendix B of the Common Core State Standards at
  • provide small group oral language intervention for students who need practice (Fisher, Frey, & Rothenberg, 2008)
  • provide opportunities for purposeful conversations (Zweirs & Crawford, 2011)
  • engage families in the work of educating their children (Evans, 2004).

Continue to work together to share ideas that work and the success that comes from collaborative effort. The conference participants are a savvy group of educational professionals. I trust that my colleagues in the Southeast can separate what was beneficial reinforcement of what we know to be true and dismiss what was not helpful. Our network meetings this spring will be planned and presented by our partner, the Collaborative for Educational Services (CES). I have provided feedback and suggestions, as I hope you did as well, and hope that our meetings will support your challenging work in meaningful ways.

Reminder: our dates are April 30 and May 21. According to our English Language Arts and Literacy Framework, those who are college and career ready,"comprehend as well as critique. (they are) engaged, open-minded - but discerning - readers and listeners...question assumptions...and assess the veracity of claims and the soundness of reasoning." (p. 9). I look forward to joining you in this important work as we address the challenges and opportunities provided by our new standards.


Evans, R. (2004). Family matters: How schools can cope with the crisis in childrearing. San Francisco, CA. Josey-Bass.

Fisher, D., Frey, N., Rothenberg, C. (2008). Content-area conversations: How to plan discussion-based lessons for diverse learners. Alexandria, VA. ASCD.

Johnston, P. H. (2004). Choice words: How our language affects children's learning. Portland, ME. Stenhouse Publishers.

Kegan, R., & Lahey, L. L. (2001). How the way we talk can change the way we work. San Francisco, CA. Josey-Bass.

Massachusetts curriculum framework for English language arts and literacy, grades pre-kindergarten to 12, incorporating the common core state standards for English language arts and literacy in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects. (March, 2011). Available at .

Zwiers, J., & Crawford, M. (2011). Academic conversations: Classroom talk that fosters critical thinking and content understandings. Portland, ME. Stenhouse Publishers.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Authentic Reasons to Write

In March I took a long vacation. Along with visiting friends and family members, sightseeing and sunning, reading occupied a significant part of the time. Several items in particular caught my mind's eye. Even when you vow to get completely away, when you love your work and are as steeped in it as I am, you never fully forget. After all, literacy is the plate so learners are always experiencing new thoughts and ideas through reading, writing, and engaging in conversations.

Three texts that I encountered during my vacation surprised me and prompted me to write. I finished Reading Jackie: Her Autobiography in Books by William Kuhn. Kuhn looked at the life of the late Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis through the books that she chose to read, especially as a young person, and those she chose or agreed to edit as a professional editor during the last twenty years of her life. The second text was given to me by my brother-in-law. It was a copy of a letter written to the editor of a local newspaper in New Hampshire by his grand-daughter, my niece. And the third one I found in the March edition of the inflight magazine. It was another opinion piece that crafted an elegant response to author, Jodi Picoult's ["Note to Self" from 12/2011 entitled "Calculus. Trust me: You will never use it."].

Of course, all of these are examples of authentic reasons for writing by adults in the real world in our present time. The book was inspiring as it showed that as persons we try, and even think, that we are the creators of our own lives. Yet anyone may come along in the moment, or after our passing and reinvent us in a particular light. Though I thoroughly enjoyed the journey through Jackie's history as a reader and a supporter of writers, I could not help but wonder what an intrepidly private person would have thought about such an unveiling of what mattered so much in her personal and professional life.

My niece, an eleventh grader, felt compelled to refute the assertions made publicly by her former Kindergarten teacher. Essentially she admonished the teacher for pigeon-holing some students based on the family situation, poverty status, or ethnicity. The teacher voiced an opinion that the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act was ill-conceived when asserting that it should not matter where a student is from, that the child has a disability, or what the child's status/ethnicity is. Every child should have the advantage that comes from her teacher's high expectations. My niece asserted that it took her several years to overcome the lack of instruction she experienced in Kindergarten. My niece was quite articulate when she stated, "People are individuals who learn in different ways and live their lives according to how they learn. The difference is the early childhood teachers, and whether they have taken their time and effort to teach you how to use your innate talent to learn." There are some poignant reminders here. We are reminded that every teacher counts; those K students know very quickly how the system works. We are teaching a hidden curriculum every day. The question for each of us is, "Which one am I teaching?" Differentiation matters. Teaching is a very hard vocation. However, recognition of each person in the class as an individual with talent and energy is the first lesson that every preservice program should teach.

"All those lovely synapses formed during math class may unconsciously help Jodi formulate the plots in her best-selling novels.", wrote M. Kandel. As an elementary teacher I taught math as well as all the other core subjects. Whenever I could, I taught math at the start of the day. Over the years I taught, the wisdom for teaching math changed and I was a champion of math thinking. When I took math as a graduate student, I was frustrated to learn that my preparation had been woefully inadequate. I did not know how to think mathematically. I was angry with teachers who simply taught me rote formulae. So, I read everything I could get my hands on to prepare for the class before it started. And my math life started in my twenties. I loved the changes in math instruction that involved open-ended problems. They made us all think more and provided many opportunities in the classroom for rich, exploratory conversations and elegant, albeit fourth grade, proofs.

So I am not sure of all the lessons that I learned from my vacation reading, but here are a few. Though I already know this, it is good to know so many people agree - teachers matter greatly. They can make a huge difference in ways that they may not know. Jackie taught several people that they had important books to write and nurtured them through the process. The books were very different because the authors were different individuals. Students are people who are individuals with talents and energy that need to be nurtured. That's the vocation of the teacher. No learning is unused. It can make us more alert, creative and vibrant. Marjorie Kandel, letter to Jodi Picoult author said, "...the difference between training and teaches us specific skills; education teaches us to think."

Friday, February 10, 2012

Engagement and Motivation

Several years ago, my colleague and I developed a workshop on engagement and motivation. Without these important aspects of classroom life, all the skill and strategy instruction in the world will not result in student success.

In the most recent Reading Today journal, researcher, John Guthrie, commented again on the importance of motivation and engagement. He said, " Motivation and engagement in literacy is a serious predicament across the spectrum from K-12. Beyond skills, effective readers and writers have developed interests, commitments, and beliefs that energize their literacy...Although motivation and engagement are vital for all students, they are not picked up automatically." What is the professional development that is needed for teachers to be empowered to support student engagement more effectively? In order for students to persevere and to develop the stamina to read complex texts and large volumes of diverse materials that the standards require, they will have to be motivated to persist and engaged in high level thinking as a regular practice in the classroom every day.

There are seven important aspects to consider with regard to engagement and motivation. I will discuss them in no particular order.

Humans are goal-oriented. Every student should know what the knowledge goal is for every lesson. That goal will be intrinsically motivating if it revolves around student learning not the test. Students want to be independent and competent not controlled and compliant. The good news is that teachers are central to creating the environment. When that environment demonstrates that the teacher and instruction is grounded in deep understanding for the student, the students will be motivated to work hard, to succeed. So, being clear about and consistently working with students in pursuit of the knowledge goal(s), leads to motivation and engagement.

The classroom must provide opportunities for real world experience. Inquiry and authentic reasons for reading, writing, speaking and listening are highlighted throughout the new Literacy Framework. If the discussion directly depends upon the reading that was done, the work is more relevant. If the listening is required to gain information from peers that will then be synthesized with information personally gathered, the activity is more relevant. If someone besides the teacher will be reading the writing - letter, email message, poster, brochure etc. the audience can be imagined and considered as the piece is prepared. All of these instructional activities require students to apply knowledge and skills as well as use them to increase knowledge, making the activities more like what we all encounter in real life every day. Writers write for readers and readers question and think with writers.

The new standards ask students to read and synthesize material from multiple sources; to read multiple pieces in various formats before speaking or writing on a particular subject. Multiple resources provide the differentiation that a diverse student population requires. Providing multiple resources ensures that all students will find material that is interesting and accessible. This can certainly be challenging in our current economic climate unless we think in a more global context. The Internet provides many opportunities to find open source and accessible texts, some of which are purely visual or auditory and some that combine both.

Over and over again in the motivation and engagement literature, choice is highlighted. Choice, differentiation, inquiry, and self-efficacy combine to create a perfect context for motivation and engagement. The new standards emphasize student-generated questions. This is often an untapped resource. As a new topic emerges, students automatically begin to wonder about the subject. Harnessing and organizing these wonderings so that students may choose which to pursue, can be a blueprint for providing choice, developing inquiry, and making students responsible for learning and sharing that learning with peers. Choice is rarely wide open. You may work with a partner, or on one of these three topics, or visit three of these six websites, or choose one of these presented formats for demonstrating your expertise. No matter how wide or narrow the limits, providing choices makes learning more interesting and enjoyable.

Teachers who demonstrate a belief in the success of all students are more motivating. Once a strategy has been taught, students need a chance to use the strategy in a purposeful and meaningful way. The standards emphasize proficiency and independence for all students by the end of the grade level. As teachers, we will want to provide the practice needed to be proficient and the opportunities to try independence with knowledge, skills, and strategies many times throughout the year while we are still at hand to provide timely and useful feedback. The gradual release of responsibility is paramount for engagement.

Structured peer collaboration is essential to motivation and engagement. Otherwise the classroom is a place of constant "parallel play" and our students have developed beyond that stage by the time we meet them. Collaboration provides much needed practice in use of academic language, problem-solving, and rigorous discourse. Even writing should involve collaboration at times. I have written with a co-author. It is challenging and rewarding. Part of the gradual release noted above involves working with peers. There are plenty of required tests that must be done alone. The real world requires many more challenges that involve collaboration.

Motivation and engagement require that the assessments align with the instruction and that coherence between them is evident. Whatever that knowledge goal was that's what should be assessed. So if the knowledge goal involves understanding simple machines, then everyone should not be required to write an explanation of them. Knowledge of simple machines may be demonstrated in many ways. If the knowledge goal is to learn to write explanatory text, then everyone will be required to write, however, the topics could be different and the presentation may be different as well.

Throughout the new Framework, I find links to increased motivation and engagement, for teachers as well as for students. I hope you are using the standards to reinvent some of your lessons with the standards as your objectives. The recommendations are to try out some lessons or units this spring, to be at near full implementation for next year and then to fully implement the new standards at all grade levels by the 2013-14 school year. Stay tuned for lots more support and collaboration as we continue the process, and whatever you do, stay motivated and engaged!

Books to consider:
Guthrie, J. Editor. (2008). Engaging adolescents in reading. Thousand Oaks, CA. Corwin Press.
Lots of individual articles by various authors on the subjects of engagement and motivation.

Fisher, D., Frey, N., & Rothenberg, C. (2008). Content-area conversations: How to plan discussion-based lessons for diverse language learners. Alexandria, VA. ASCD.
This book has an appendix filled with collaborative structures to support peer collaboration at all levels. It includes linguistic frames to give language learners practice in academic language and discourse.

Please note:Harvard Graduate School of Education will host a
four-day professional education institute, Making it Work: Implementing a
Comprehensive PreK-3rd Grade Approach, May 9-12, 2012. Full details about applying, as well as additional information about the content of the Institute and the preferred team
composition, may be found here: