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Thursday, April 28, 2011

Reflections on Literacy Work at LFHS by Michelle Brann, Literacy Team Chair

This school year marked my fourth year on our school’s staff Literacy Team.  I remember being asked to be a member of the new team and attending our first professional development workshop only to experience a moment of panic – was I going to have to learn how to teach students to read?! I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that I was tempted to excuse myself from the team that day. I had majored in history in college and only made my way in to teaching on a whim – my school had a January term which offered the opportunity to student teach for a month. At the urging of my mother I decided to try it, and to my great joy, realized that I loved it. However, in my mind, what I loved was teaching history, NOT reading.  I distinctly remember thinking, “if I had wanted to teach reading, I would have become an elementary school teacher.” So it became a very pleasant surprise to me, after deciding to stick it out a little longer to see what this “literacy stuff” was all about, that I soon realized that teaching literacy is teaching students not how to read, but how to think – my goal as a high school history teacher to begin with. The teaching methods I learned through the literacy team have helped me immensely to help my students reach that goal.

I experienced success with many of the teaching practices I learned with the team almost immediately. During my first two years on the team, strategies such as “QAR” (Questioning-Answering Strategies for Children, Taffy Raphael) and “REQUEST” (Improving Reading Comprehension Through Reciprocal Questioning, Manzo) changed the way I asked my students to think and had a significant affect on their academic performance. Through the training we received on the Literacy Team, and books like Reading for Understanding, by Shoenbach, Greenleaf, Cziko, and Hurwitz, I was able to add to my teaching “tool-belt” in a way that greatly benefited my skills in the classroom and consequently, also benefited my own students' learning.


Despite the success that many of our team members were seeing in our own classrooms during those first two years, we had a difficult time in trying to make our practices part of the school’s wider culture. Last year we were finally able to begin presenting to the staff in a way that at least began capturing non-team members’ (positive) attention, providing mini-lessons on some of our most successful practices at various staff meetings throughout the year. While the mini-lessons certainly did not start any revolutionary changes at the high school, they did at least set the tone for the team to begin making a really significant impact on teaching practices at the school this year.
During the summer of 2010, with a change in administration, the team began to reorganize and added some new members. We met during the summer to give new team members a “crash course” on literacy, but more importantly, we began laying out a plan that would allow us to make staff-wide, meaningful change in our school’s best teaching practices. As the year progressed, it became clear that we had two major goals. We wanted to help staff make learning goals and objectives clear for students and we wanted to find a way to make reading for pleasure a regular part of every student’s week.
Our first major goal was to introduce a lesson plan framework that would help teachers focus in on the specific objectives they want their students to achieve and to construct their lessons using a consistent format (adapted from EDU 590 LMFHS October 26 PowerPoint). The format we chose to introduce uses an opening activity, usually in the form of a quick-write, that allows students to apply prior knowledge and experience to learning new information in meaningful chunks. Each class ends with a closing activity that allows students to process the information they have learned that day and gives teachers a quick opportunity to check for understanding and adjust upcoming plans accordingly. Most importantly, the framework requires that teachers have clearly posted objectives each day that are explicitly referred to throughout the lesson, making it clear to the students what the learning goal is and giving them an opportunity to self-assess for understanding through the class period. Finally, having a consistent classroom framework created a learning environment in which students knew exactly what to expect each class. Rather than spending energy on interpreting what the teacher expected from them, they could instead spend their energy where it was most needed – on learning objectives.
The team members piloted the lesson plan framework in our own classrooms first, and I soon noticed my own teaching and classroom management improving dramatically. Beginning every class with a quick-write activity established a clear expectation for what every student should be doing at the beginning of the class, having an immediate impact on student behavior throughout the rest of the period. And of course the main reason for the quick-write, activating students’ prior knowledge, helped students to connect with new material more effectively. I soon noticed an increase in student attention and participation in class discussion.
By posting the day’s objective on the wall and explicitly referring to it throughout the class period, I found it significantly easier to stay focused on the day’s goal, and I believe it improved my delivery. I have also found that reflecting back on the objectives several times throughout the lesson is helping me to identify areas of my unit plans that need adjustments or, in some cases, even need to be eliminated completely. I found that having the posted objective to refer to throughout the lesson was helping me to make better use of my students’ time in my class.
After taking enough time to really understand the benefits of the framework and feel comfortable using it, we partnered up with other staff members to begin making it a staff wide practice. We began by having our partner teachers observe our classrooms. After providing them with time to try it in their own room, they then had the opportunity to have us in their classrooms to help with any questions or concerns they still had. Overall we received a positive response. Some teachers immediately saw value in the framework, and one of my partner teachers went so far as to say, “It has made me a more effective teacher.” (Personal conversation) Even when teachers had reservations about the framework itself, they still appreciated the format we used to present it. Many teachers commented on how valuable it is to be able to visit other classrooms, and several also expressed appreciation for having team members, their own co-workers, in to help provide constructive feedback in a non-threatening atmosphere. While there is still much work to help everybody feel truly comfortable using this framework on a daily basis, we have already made significant gains.
The team’s second major goal, creating time for students to experience reading for pleasure on a regular basis, took shape in the form of our new Free To Read program. It ‘s overall structure was the brainchild of one our teammates, Library Media Specialist, Cathi Howell. With her expert experience and ideas for the foundation of the program, the team worked together to establish the details and to anticipate any questions or concerns that might prevent the program from finding success among the staff and students. We began with the premise that students benefit most when they have several short (30-40 minutes) opportunities each week to read something they are interested in rather than having one extended period each week (SSR with Intervention, Leslie B. Preddy). With that in mind, we decided the program would begin with two forty-minute reading periods a week, with the hope that it may someday be expanded to three days a week. We also knew that students would benefit more if the reading program included an opportunity to think about and discuss their reading (The SSR Handbook, H.M. Miller). Therefore we decided that each reading session would end with a five-minute opportunity for discussion among teachers and their advisees.
Once we had a plan for what we wanted our reading program to look like, we began preparations to introduce it as successfully as possible. Cathi administered a student survey to gather information on student reading habits and book interest. Group members solicited local businesses for gift certificates that we could use as rewards for participating in the program. We also created a presentation for staff and students to help explain the program using Scholastic’s Reader Bill of Rights ( We presented to other teachers during a staff meeting and provided them with an opportunity to fill out a comment/question card. We organized a school wide assembly for the student presentation, and even invited local town library staff in to speak about reading opportunities in their own library.
The first month and a half of our Free to Read program has gone exceptionally well. We made it clear from the beginning that this reading time would be considered “sacred” and found a way to include it on all regularly scheduled days, even when other events threatened to get in the way. Teachers report that they have faced very little resistance from their advisor groups, and many students have made positive comments about looking forward to the reading time. Perhaps most gratifying, we have had visitors from outside of the school witness and make extremely positive comments about the program, one going so far as to say that we “are doing it the right way.” (Conversations with USM Professor of History Libby Bischoff and Maine DOE consultant Steve McDougal)
We are so proud of the work that we have done this year. At times we have struggled to maintain the energy and positive attitudes necessary to make such far-reaching change, but it is truly gratifying to now see the fruits of our labor blossoming. There is a great deal more work to be done, but based on the slow change in culture we are already seeing, we are looking forward to continuing our work next year.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Integrating Literacy by Jenni Plante

One frustrating aspect of education is the fickle nature of educational theory. Reform movements roll in like waves and then recede, leaving teachers soaked and sputtering, wondering what hit them. Too many waves, and teachers become jaded. Why embrace the next innovation when it will only fade like all of the ones before it? Luckily, it seems we may have reached the end of the long era of pedagogical fads.
            Educational research has always primarily been qualitative. While qualitative studies are no less valid than quantitative ones, qualitative studies typically involve smaller sample sizes and are therefore more susceptible to erroneous extrapolation. Teachers perpetually crave “what works,” so it is no surprise that new teaching methods spread like wildfire as each innovation is discovered, even if early studies only show success for a limited number of students. As these innovations permeate teaching, flaws develop. Methods may be applied inconsistently, inappropriately, or haphazardly, often due to a lack of teacher training prior to implementation. Enthusiasm begins to wane and eventually practices that were once lauded are excoriated. The problem is deeper than just educators’ propensity to glom onto pedagogical fads, however. Until recently, educational research was by default trial-and-error because not much was known about how the brain processes information. As science gains more and more insight into the physiology of learning, educational research will become more meaningful, and reform movements will become less cyclical and more effective.
            For me, this year reform has meant integrating best practices derived from brain-based research. One of the most fundamental changes has been to the structure and rhythm of my lessons, especially the opening and closing activities. Although the introduction to my lessons have always included a “Here’s what we’re doing today” summary, those monologues were not formally structured and often did not state the objective correctly—i.e., in student language with active verbs derived from Bloom’s Taxonomy. Also, activities to connect to students’ prior knowledge typically occurred after the explanation of the day’s lesson, and they did not always include discussion. Starting the period with a quickwrite followed by discussion allows students to immediately activate their prior knowledge, priming them for the lesson ahead. Because this is followed by a well-stated objective coupled with focus questions, students have both a learning target and a framework for achieving it. Closing the lesson with a short, written assignment (i.e., “Exit Slip”) linked to the objective helps solidify new information and gives me an easy, concrete way to assess students’ learning and plan for the next lesson.
            Teaching students metacognitive language and skills has had a profound effect on my classroom. Students are on task during small group and whole class discussions, and the content of those discussions reach the higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy more frequently. Students have begun using the language of metacognition in both formal and informal conversations—e.g., “I think . . . because . . .”—and on written assignments. Because there is a concerted and consistent effort school wide to enhance students’ metacognitive skills, I cannot take credit for the increase in metacognitive awareness. Instead, I try to capitalize upon the progress students are making overall.
            As the school year progresses, I log my successes and failures and make notes for the future in a special notebook. Looking through it reminds me that teaching is both a science and an art. Many say teaching is a juggling act, but teachers do not simply rotate through discrete sets of knowledge, ignoring one or two in favor of the one at hand. Teaching is like weaving a tapestry. Reading comprehension, discussion, writing, vocabulary, rhetoric, speaking, literature, etc.—none can be taught in isolation; all are interdependent. This year I incorporated a plethora of literacy strategies into my curriculum but failed to successfully maintain an effective word wall, so perhaps my tapestry is resplendent with shades of blue but lacks a certain orange hue. There are loose threads here and there, representative of things explored but not adopted. Blogs, for example, which fell victim to my early and intense frustration with the capricious network filter. Lapses in consistency have led to small holes, too, and clearly this tapestry is the work of an eager but inexperienced weaver. It is my nature to scrutinize and fret over imperfections, and I’ve had to force myself to step back far enough to allow the missing colors, loose threads, and holes blur until my work can be viewed as a whole. What I see now is imperfect but beautiful.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Cohort 3 from Mt. Blue

April 7 and 8, Cohort 3 of the Mt. Blue Literacy initiative coached their peers to complete their course requirements.

Everyone did a great job and thoroughly enjoyed the collegiality.

Coaching to build reflection is the focus of the training provided for Mt. Blue.

Congratulations and thank you to all involved:)

Karen and Meadow:)

Special Education and English

Meadow also met with Robert (economics) and Alicia (English)

Therese and Lisa.

Social Studies/Science and Foreign Language

Jake met with John and Debbie.

Physics and English

Kudos to all:)

Wednesday, April 6, 2011


        Last year when I was asked to be part of the literacy team at LFHS, I thought it would involve learning how to teach reading to high school students. I imagined it to be something like what I had been taught in Literacy Volunteers many years ago when I had training for teaching adults to read. I had hopes for learning  specific skills to help my students become better readers. For the past several years I have had more and more students coming to my tenth grade biology classes lacking reading comprehension skills. Many of my students struggle with my textbook and I have had to “ digest” the material in the text and explain everything to them before I could get them to read and find answers to study guides on their own. I thought I would learn some skills on how to teach reading to high school students to help them with comprehension.
            When I found out we were taking a class on literacy coaching I was a little confused because I did not have a handle on the concept of a literacy coach. I did not expect that the training I would receive in coaching literacy would help me learn the skills to become a better teacher in biology! This year has been quite different from what I had expected and it really has changed my ideas about literacy for high school students. It has changed how I view reading and most of all it has helped me become a better teacher of biology.
            The first task we were given was to find reading materials for all levels of students in our subject areas. We were introduced to Marvel and other online resources to help us find differentiated reading materials for all levels of  students. This allowed lower level students to read material that was more suitable for them and thus they were more successful in class. I have used this method for many of my lessons and now focus less on text reading assignments and more on reading materials that are at each student’s reading level. This  has worked well and is  a good way to get lower level students reading the material at grade level. As part of the literacy team we worked with the whole faculty at LFHS and taught them how to find materials for different levels. We had our entire faculty try this with their students and then we had them share how they had used this with 3 different levels of students.  Most of the faculty found this to be helpful. The only real problems the faculty had were with the technology and having the Marvel site blocked or unavailable when they needed to use it. Some faculty had a difficulty finding enough resources.
             For the first half of the year our whole faculty read the book,  Tools for Teaching in the Block by Roberta L .Sejnost. We would meet once a month for a book discussion and training on some of the ideas presented in the book.  Faculty volunteers taught mini-lessons on Socratic Circles, QAR and how to do a Carousel.  I found the book to be a great tool and I have tried several ideas presented in the book.  One idea that I tried  and felt my students enjoyed was the Summary ABC book (page 158 Senjnost). I did this as a  culminating activity after we had been studying about cells. Students worked in groups of 2 to create an ABC Book on Cells. Each group selected a specific teacher to whom they  dedicated the book. They then were asked to write the book for the grade level the teacher taught so for example , the 6th grade book would be more in depth than one for the second grade. My original plan was to have my students go to the elementary school and share the book with the class they were giving the book to but this plan did not work out because of time and transportation. I still have hopes of going to share the books with younger students and would like to do this at the end of the year as a culmination project for the year.
       After the literacy team modeled a carousel activity, I used it during my unit on cell division. I had students get into small groups and each group was given information to read  on one of the phases of the cell cycle to become experts on.  They were asked to list the events of the phase and make a model out of Play-Doh to show what was happening during the phase. They then got into another group and they shared what they learned with their new group. Students used their laptops and took pictures of each phase and created an iMovie of the cell cycle. They created title slides, which listed the major events for each phase of the cell cycle, and added these to their movies. This activity went well and gave students practice using the new laptops and opportunities for sharing new learning. Students worked in groups to learn the events of mitosis and then took the information to make their movie. Some students went a step beyond what we did in class and created a new movie on their own. Most of my students enjoyed this project!
            The second half of the year we focused on peer coaching. We used the model of the lesson plan in Sejnost’s book and taught the faculty how to set up a lesson using this format with a quick write to activate prior knowledge, written objectives and focus questions and a closure with an exit ticket. After we introduced this lesson plan format we had faculty come into our classes and watch us model how we were using it. We then went into our colleagues’ classes and observed them using this format. Once teachers realized this was not an evaluative observation but just a way to share ideas and help them, they were less anxious about the process.
            I must be honest and say, that I found this process very frightening at first but overwhelmingly beneficial in the end! Once I got over my own fears and lack of confidence, I began to see that this process was a great tool for my own personal learning and growth as a professional. It was very enlightening to go into other classes. It was nice to see  how other classes are set up and how simple procedures like starting class and ending class could be so similar but different. It was a wonderful way to see how students respond in different environments with different teachers. It was amazing to see how these 3 simple ideas could help our school become more cohesive.  I think that the idea of a common lesson plan format will help our students make more sense of what they are doing in all classes.   I think that peer coaching has helped our faculty communicate more  about what is best for our students.
            The faculty has been cooperative and most of them have been open to the new ideas the literacy team has brought to the staff this year.  Through this process I believe that the faculty at LFHS has become more intentional in their teaching practices. They have become more open to sharing ideas with colleagues. They are working more collaboratively and working to become better at what they do. I for one have learned a great deal by being part of the  literacy team. It has helped me become more reflective my teaching practices, I have tried lots of new ideas this year and I will continue to find ways to help me to become a better teacher in the years to come!