Friday, January 31, 2014

21st Century Classrooms: Engage, Empower, and Teach

“Sticks and stones may break my bones
    But words could never hurt me.”
    And this I knew was surely true
    And truth could not desert me.
    But now I know it is not so.
    I’ve changed the latter part;
    For sticks and stones may break the bones
    But words can break the heart.
    Sticks and stones may break the bones
    But leave the spirit whole,
    But simple words can break the heart
    Or silence crush the soul.

Choice Words: How Our Language Affects Children's Learning
by Peter H. Johnston. Stenhouse, 2004

     The Power of Words
Changing Minds and Changing Worlds

Today’s guest post by high school Math teacher Daniel O’Neill challenges us to deepen our students’ experience of learning by infusing a simple engagement technique into our lessons and by considering the phrasing of language we use with our students. In making this leap, we can transform students’ negative statements to positive statements to create a more memorable and rich learning culture for them — something that could hopefully shape their future. Please read on to see how Daniel incorporates these ideas into his teaching! Daniel can be reached at

Student Engagement—
Do not accept “I don’t know…”

Image used under Creative Commons
               Part of being engaged is being willing to be engaged.  Some students use coping mechanisms to avoid the stressful situations that often accompany being engaged.  I empathize with them, but I also know that allowing those avoiding coping mechanisms to work is allowing students not to learn, which reinforces and perpetuates an unfortunate cycle.  

             I have been reflecting on and trying to notice some of my habits and tendencies I have created over my career with regard to those students. I noticed that I have developed a way of being that causes students who are not engaged to be very uncomfortable by taking away their negative coping mechanisms.  I do not allow my students to say “I don’t know” during class discussions.  

            In my classroom, students don’t have to have the correct answer, but they do have to offer up something rather than “I don’t know.”  Here are their choices: They can tell the class something they do know that is in some way related to the original question.  They can ask a meaningful question.  They can reference their notes to gain clarity.  The only way a student can escape these stressful situations is to think and engage. Those situations while awaiting a student’s response and the awkward silence that accompanies the wait are painfully uncomfortable until the class culture is developed to the point where this is totally natural.  

             This strategy works for most students because they realize that they can think and that they do know more.  They usually quickly abandon the negative avoiding mechanism of saying “I don’t know,” and realize that the only way to feel comfortable is to engage.  Sadly, there are some students though who persist in focusing more on their stress and fear rather than making the shift.  

               My very direct approach does not work with a small percentage of students.  So, what I am working on now is trying to imagine a way of being that both challenges every student to be fully engaged, holds them accountable for their engagement, yet still is supportive enough to help even the most math afraid students grow “more comfortable being uncomfortable” without pushing them away. I have not figured it out yet, but I have gotten past placing the blame on students.  I am taking my share of the responsibility. I want to be right about why students can learn rather than be right about why they can’t.     

              In my experience, many students are quick to identify what they are not good at and what they cannot do.  Many students choose negative language to describe their academic situations.  After they state, as fact, what they cannot do, they seem to stop thinking.  Oftentimes, after a student has stated that they cannot do something they look at me with an-almost challenging look, “What are you going to do about it?”  

              We want our students to be honest with themselves. We want our students to respond even to their admissions of weaknesses as evidence of their desire for strengths. In others words, its okay to be wrong or to make a mistake since it is vital to the process of learning. Here are some examples of how to reshape the language students’ use with honest and positive rephrasing in order to stop their fixed negative self-talk. 

Negative Student Statement
Positive Honest Rephrase
“I am lazy”
“I want to feel motivated to improve”
“I’m not good at reading”
“I need to practice to become a better reader”
“I don’t know the quadratic formula”
I know that the quadratic formula is used to solve quadratic equations, but I need to spend more time working with it before I know it by heart”
“I’m not good at math”
“I would like to be better at math.  I want to be smart”
“I’m going to fail the test”
“I need to spend more time learning and mastering concepts before I can perform well on the test”
“I don’t try hard”
“I would benefit from asking questions, practicing skills, and self-assessing my own level of mastery”
“I hate school”
“I want the experiences I have in school to help me feel stronger.  I know that I’ll have to experience struggle.  I am ok with the struggle as long as I am struggling toward success”

               I realize that when you first read this, you might think, “Yeah, right.  Students don’t talk like that.” Students do talk like this once they’ve learned how.  Ask them to rephrase every single negative statement you hear them say.  In the beginning, some of them may say the positive statements with a mocking tone.  Just embrace the fact that they are practicing the rephrasing.  They’ll soon lose the mocking tone.  Also, recognize that some students will genuinely struggle with rephrasing positively.  Respect their struggle and help them.  Do not accuse them of being unwilling to rephrase when they say they can’t. Encourage them and let them know that you believe they can. I have been working on this for years. It is effective.

Listen closely to your teacher talk 
Do not say “Class, I want you to…”
               Observe any classroom and you will most likely hear, “I want you to…” over and over again.  Stop for a moment and recognize where the focus is.  School is supposed to be about students’ learning and self-empowerment, so our language should reflect that.  Rephrase “I want….” with positive and empowering words:
·         You will benefit from…”
·         “If you…, then you’ll learn…”
·         “You’ll learn most from…”
·         “Now you have the opportunity to…”
·         “You can show that you learned… by ...”

               Use any other phrase that is focused on student learning rather than complying with the teacher.  Trust me!  A teacher can live out an entire career without ever uttering, “I want”.  This might seem like a small change, but the impact on the culture of learning is enormous.  Again, be ready for this to be an extremely difficult change to make.  As began making this change in my classroom language, I would experience horrible embarrassment when I “slipped”.  It just sounds so selfish once you become aware of it, but I kept habitually doing it. 

               I decided to enlist the help of my students.  I got a Nerf ball and told my students if they ever caught me saying, “I want”, then I’d give them the Nerf ball, close my eyes, and give them a free shot.  It was funny the few times they caught me, but the sad part is that they rarely catch me even when I notice it myself.  Students are so used to hearing, “I want” that they don’t even realize it. Please make this change, give up the “I want”. 

Keys to a Successful Rephrase

              Our goal is for students to feel more powerful, so it is extremely important that they feel their original idea was not lost in translation.  The rephrase cannot negate the validity of the original statement.  We are not making them think altogether different thoughts.  I am trying to help my students without covert manipulation. This is important because students can tell, consciously or subconsciously, when we try to manipulate them.  Keep in mind; we want them to feel empowered.   

              Another reason to recognize the fundamental change that occurs in the rephrasing is that while most students will immediately flourish in this new environment of positive phrasing, like someone moving from a smog congested city to the fresh air of a mountain town, a few people will feel an initial increase in stress. By using language and positive directed statements, we are creating an atmosphere that inherently contains the expectation to constantly get better. The expectation for growth and endurance of struggle toward growth will cause a significant increase of stress for some people.  Be aware of that and be compassionate and empathetic to their discomfort.  Maintain your expectation that they engage and grow no matter how uncomfortable it might make both of you. They want to be smart.  Be patient, most of them will come around eventually.  

Respect the Challenge of Changing Fundamental Habits

               In order to stay determined to make this most important change, we need to respect and be aware of how difficult the change may be to make.  Here is the key to helping your students learn to phrase positively: lead by example.  You will see how difficult it is.  Always direct your students by telling them what to do and how to do it correctly.  Always follow telling students to do something in a particular way by explaining the learning benefit, short term or long term, they will experience.  The answer to why a student must do something is always what the student receives from the experience.  If a student asks, “Do I have to…?” answer, “NO, you don’t have to, but if you do you’ll benefit from…”  

               Embrace the opportunities that arise when you catch yourself phrasing something negatively when talking to students. Stop yourself mid-sentence, genuinely apologize for phrasing negatively, and rephrase positively.  I can’t emphasize enough how important these moments are.  When you begin your original negative phrasing, an emotion will be cast over your students.  They probably won’t even notice it because they are so used to hearing such statements.  

               When you stop yourself and apologize, you will grab their attention.  When you rephrase the original negative statement to a positive one, a different emotion will be cast.  It is the contrast of cast emotions that is important.  If the contrast seems to be significant and you think that a large portion of the students also recognize it, bring conscious attention to the contrast by talking about it briefly to your students.  Not only will your students notice the difference in how they feel, they will actually have respect for you rather than just having to show respect to you because you are a teacher.  

             Once again, many thanks to Daniel O'Neill for sharing and caring. I have been interested in teacher talk for two decades, but my perspective has been linked solely to an explicitness and thoughtfulness surrounding the teaching for comprehension. I really had not thought about talk through a social-emotional lens. Daniel will be back again soon to share his thinking on teaching  struggling math students. Next week, one of my former college students and now friend shares how her school is currently implementing a year-long campaign on grit. Can't wait.

               As always, thank you for stopping by. Hopefully, today's blog has inspired you to think about the language you use with your students and the fixed-mindset, their beliefs and perceptions, your students  have about themselves as learners. We have so much influence. Granted, never as much as we would like. Hope it's a great day and Happy Saturday.

If you would like your story, or a colleague's story to be featured on Saturday Morning Coffee please send an inquiry to 

Additional Resources
  1. Choice Words by Peter H. Johnston first chapter available online here
  2. Opening Minds: Using Language to Change Lives by Peter H. Johnston available for complete online previewing here
  3. Peter Johnston's handout from his Iowa Keynote this last fall

Pictures used today:

Friday, January 24, 2014

A Teacher's Quest for Mastery of Close Reading: A 4th Grade Lesson

Close Reading
Moving Forward with Our Teaching

If our teaching is to be an art, we must draw from all we know, feel, and
believe in order to create something beautiful...It is not the number
of good ideas that turns our work into art but the 

selection, balance and design of those ideas.
Lucy Calkins (1994)

Terri Rodger's students displaying the heart of close reading.

               Limited training and misconceptions surrounding CCSS have resulted in many teachers having had (or having) an incomplete or incorrect understanding of what close reading is and how to teach it.  If you presently teach literacy you most certainly are either working on developing and teaching close reading lessons, or at the very least, you are thinking about it. Hopefully you have taken that first step. 

               By and large we remain a closed-door profession. If there are no administrative mandates for teaching close reading, it remains too easy to push close reading to the back burner and assure ourselves that next year we'll take it on. That simply is not going to cut it. Our oath as educators is rooted in the idea of preparing students to become contributing adults. As teachers, our role is to prepare our students for surviving and thriving in the future--most certainly, a highly complex and changing world. Truthfully, no one has a clue what their world will look like. However, what is crystal-ball-clear is that the future of our students (and our future) depends upon citizens who are able to effectively think and reason.  Close reading provides the opportunity and venue to do just that-- teach students how to think critically. This is truth and undeniably a  "21st Century Must Do."  Since we already are in the 21st Century there is not a moment to lose. This is a matter of urgency. The skills associated with close reading are:
  • read closely citing specific textual evidence (R.1)
  • analyze how ideas develop and interact with one another (R.3)
  • analyze words and phrases for specific word choices and how they shape meaning (R.4)
  • analyze the structure of texts (R.5)
  • analyze how point of view shapes a text (R.6)
  • analyze two or more texts to build knowledge (R.9) 


 Meet Terri Rodger, 4th Grade Teacher
Dennis Earl School in Turlock, CA

It is such a pleasure to feature a dear friend and colleague sharing her most recent close reading lesson with us. I have had the pleasure of knowing and teaching with Terri for more than a decade. Her passion for the profession and her steadfast love and support of ALL her students comes through each and every day as she walks into the classroom. Her name precedes former students conversations about their most favorite teacher EVER. Terri, don't ever doubt your influence and the imprint you have made. You have literally changed lives.

Terri Rodger has been in education for 29 years. She has taught kindergarten, second, third, fourth and fifth grade.  Terri has been active in professional development as an instructor and site coordinator for Reading First Institutes.  She has also been an Instructional Coach, BTSA mentor, and teacher leader.  She holds a Master of Arts degree in Administration and Supervision from California State University Stanislaus. In 2012, she returned to her “true passion” the classroom.  Terri has been married to the “man of her dreams”, her husband Terry, for 36 years. She enjoys reading and traveling.

Terri was so generous with her time and camera. Here is our interview:

 Will you describe how you planned?

At the end of Christmas break a 4th grade colleague and I met to discuss where we were headed next as far as Common Core was concerned.  I had introduced close reading to my class, we had annotated informational text in social studies and science and various pieces of text I had brought in.  My colleague and I looked at the CCS and decided to focus on the following standards:
  • Literacy CCRA.R.1 - Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
  • Literacy CCRA.R.3 - Analyze how and why individuals, events, or ideas develop and interact over the course of a text.
  • Literacy RL.4.1- Refer to details and examples in a text when explaining what the text says explicitly and when drawing inferences from the text.
  • Literacy RL.4.3- Describe in depth a character, setting, or event in a story or drama, drawing on specific details in the text (e.g., a character’s thoughts, words, or actions).
We then began to look at each standard and think about the objectives for each standard. We needed to review what students need in order to master the standard and what it looks like when they do. Our questions were simple:
  1.   How am I going to accomplish this?
  2.   How will I assess?
How did you choose the text? 

We decided to look in our Houghton Mifflin California Edition anthology to see which selections had a character that changed throughout the story.  We were fortunate to find two that we felt would “fit the bill.”  We also liked the fact that the first story “Happy Birthday, Dr. King!” coincided with Dr. King’s birthday and the selection,“The Last Dragon” coincided with Chinese New Year! We selected two stories because we wanted to compare and contrast the characters from each story.  

"Happy Birthday, Dr. King" is about a young boy, Jamal, who is given an assignment to come up with an idea for the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. school assembly.  In addition, he is given a “pink” slip reprimand for fighting on the bus. His grandfather, having endured segregation, provides him with lots of first-hand information.  Jamal’s father also recounts his personal experience of hearing Dr. King preach in his church.  Jamal learns a lesson and comes up with a great idea for a skit.

Have you taught close reading lessons from your basal before?

Absolutely, we started with predictions and added slowly.  A couple of students asked today if they could throw out the old post-it notes from previous stories.  My answer was "No!"  I want them to see what they have done at the end of the year.  We have not read every story in the anthology.  I move around a lot through the text.  The biggest issue of course is my supply of Post-its.  In addition to the ones I receive from the school, I buy large quantities at the $1 store and ask parents to donate. Although my students prefer to use text that they can highlight, etc. They are fine with post-its.
What kinds of decisions were you making while teaching?

I was always thinking "Where do I go next?"  After looking at their predictions I noticed that I needed a mini-lesson/reteach before our next story.  I needed to make decisions on whether “low babies” needed more scaffolding.  At one point I realized I needed a sentence frame or two to help with partner discussion. I had assumed that they did not need one because we are 6 months into the school year.  Some of my students were not fully engaged. I was so disappointed because they said things like "I think the family will have dinner together" when they saw a picture of the family around the table. Our sentence frame has always been:

                       I think ___________ might happen because _______________.

As I monitored partner and class discussions, I also realized that some were getting stuck on unimportant details and not looking at the Big Idea. I included that in our next discussion.

Terri's Teaching Sequence was 8 days

Day 1: Vocabulary, picture walk/predicting

Day 2: First read, annotating for new words, interesting facts, questions, comments, etc.



Day 3: Discussion and Charting of important parts of story, problems, etc.  
Second read, annotating character traits of main character and evidence.

Day 4: Partner and class discussions, charting, more annotating, etc. Students then completed a graphic organizer reflecting character at beginning, middle and end of the story 

Day 5: Reading and Journaling. Third read. Students were given questions to guide them if needed.  We then had discussion and sharing time.

Day 6: Review of Author’s purpose and introduction to Author’s message.  Partner and whole class discussion on what message (lesson, point or idea) was the author trying to convey in the story.  

Day 7 and 8: Introduction to Response to Literature.
We could have gone longer (more days) but I decided to eliminate one graphic organizer and not have them do a final draft of the Response to Literature. I felt we had met our objectives and goals and if I assigned those two items it was like “beating a dead horse.”

What really worked with this lesson?
I taught my students about metacognition in the beginning of the year.  They really did not have a clear understanding. With annotating they are really starting to “think”.  Several of them have commented that by reading several times and annotating, they really think they are becoming better readers.  Charting everything (discussions, thoughts, etc.) really helps discussion and also serves as scaffolding for students.

What would you change? 

I realized that some of my guiding questions during journaling were not at a higher level.  I need to study Webb's Depths of Knowledge (DOK) when planning. DOK questions stems can be linked here.

Did you have a formative assessment? 
Formative assessment happened throughout the 8 days.  A lot of it was looking at what they were annotating on their post-it notes. This showed me what they understood.  Class discussions and calling on non-volunteers also helped me to see if they “got-it.” Spot checking their journal writing was important.

What was the students’ take away in terms of learning? 

Students felt that they were looking closely at the character and realized how important they are to the story.  Many of them commented that they understand the stories so much better (see above)

What was your take away? 
Each of Terri's students were given an "Annotating Text" folder when school started.
It serves as their organizer, scaffold, and catch-all for C.R. materials being currently worked on.

Although, I love Close Reading, there are some areas that I need to work on to strengthen students' learning.
  • Time is a big issue. I noticed that I need to streamline my lessons.
  • I need to reassess how I teach Close reading.  First of all, in the beginning I gave them a chart with all kinds of symbols to use for annotating (see picture above).  There are too many symbols and I have learned that they only need a few common ones. They need to learn what works best for them.
  • I need to continue to “unpack the standards” to see what I need to keep and what I can let  go of.  
  • Our goal was Literacy. RL.4.3 (describe depth of character). We tweaked Literacy.CCRA.R.9 (Analyze two or more texts for themes and topics) in that we chose character analysis. This is a good example about letting things go. Although we felt it was a good lesson, it is not the 4th grade CC standard.   
              Thank you so much for sharing Terri.  I know there is insight to be gained by everyone who reads this week's blog. You were so very generous with your information and pictures. As a result, many teachers will be planning their close reading lessons by thinking closely about selection of text, balance of standards, design of learning activities that tap into those higher levels of cognition, and the actual teaching. For me, our collaboration this week made for a rich and exciting week as we communicated back and forth. It was such a pleasure.

               Parts of Terri's reflection reminded me of the close reading lesson I taught in the fall using Scholastic News where my knock-me-on-the-head insight was KIS. If we want our teaching to be an art as Calkins describes, and we want our students to be able to independently use what we have so carefully orchestrated, we must simplify and streamline the learning sequence. This does not mean removing the rigor. I think a guiding question is How do we maintain rigor within our close reading lessons, yet insure that what we are asking of our students is doable? More on this later in February. For next week we will be discussing how to give effective feedback to our students. Daniel O'Neill returns to share some of his ideas and examples.

               As always, thank you for stopping by and staying for the inspiration. I think we all need to consider comparing the rigor we are providing along side the rigor CCSS is promoting.  Without deep understanding, a text cannot truly come to life. I have provided you with a few tools in the resource section. Very best wishes for a Happy Saturday. 

Additional Resources
Depth of Knowledge:
  1. Video defining and applying Depth of Knowledge (extremely good examples in the application)
  2. Levels of Thinking in Blooms Taxonomy compared to Webb's Depth of Knowledge link here
  3. Descriptors of Levels of Depth of Knowledge for Social Studies link here 
  4. Cognitive Rigor Matrix for reading and writing link here
Texts for Close Reading Lessons:
 Annotations Made Simple:
For consideration of a less cumbersome annotation system link  here