Thursday, November 10, 2011

All conferences are not created equal...

Yesterday I explained a little bit about the Student Led Conferences that my middle school has been doing for 14 years now. In that post, I mentioned that I would not be attending my own 6th grader's conference. Instead I emailed her teachers to make sure all was well. I know them all; my first daughter had them when she went through 6th grade. And my 6th grader is still an open book when it comes to letting her mama know what is going on at school.

I did decide, however, that I should attend conferences for my 9th grader. She's in a new building, I don't know many of the teachers (even though it is the high school I attended), and I am not sure I can count on her to tell me if there are any problems...that whole issue of growing up and not talking much to your parents anymore and all. Her conferences started today at 3:30. I had to be back at my building by 5:00 and I have about a 20 minute drive between the two.

I do not intend to offend anyone with the rest of this post. I know that the description that follows is just the way things have always been done. But I honestly believe that if schools want to get parents more involved, they need to seriously look at their conference procedures. When I arrived at the school, I picked up G's report card and went into the cafeteria. Where all the teachers were stationed. All of them. I had to find her teachers (I knew this would be a chore; that's why I made her come too.)

Once I located all G's teachers, I proceeded to wait in lines. I was in that cafeteria for almost an hour. The amount of time that I spoke with teachers: 5 minutes. Maybe. I will not attend parent teacher conferences again. The waiting was not the only thing that wasted my time. Even the 5 minutes of talk was wasted time. Why? Because all the teachers did was tell me her grade (which I could see on the report card) and give me a print-out that detailed how they arrived at their grades. Even the assignment names didn't give me any hints about what she learned.

I don't care much for grades, but if a teacher is going to give one, they ought to be able to tell me what the grade means. In one class, G received an A-. In going over the detailed report, this teacher told me, "Well it's pretty close to an A. There really isn't much she could do better." Then why the A-? is that I wanted to ask. But my real burning questions were: What is she learning? How are you assessing her learning? How are you teaching her to assess herself ? How are you making sure she maintains her curiosity and her desire for learning? What do you REALLY KNOW about my child?

Another teacher, after telling me his concern that she isn't challenged enough told G that if she needed to be challenged more, she should read more, and maybe some more challenging text. Really? I agree that she should look for ways to challenge herself. But if the class text isn't challenging enough, shouldn't there be some differentiation of instruction happening?

But the best comment of the night was from, well, I don't even want to say what subject in case people who know G and who know the teachers at this school read let's just say, from one of her teachers: "I wish I could find something negative to say but I just can't." I hope this teacher has a dry sense of humor that went over my head. I hope this teacher was saying this tongue-in-cheek, but honestly, I couldn't read him well enough to tell. But I know there are some teachers who really do look for the negatives in their students. I'd just always hoped some teachers wouldn't be my kids' teacher.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Student Led Conferences

Our middle school is looking forward to our 14th annual student led conferences tonight and tomorrow night. We love our student led conferences. And I am so envious of the parents who get to hear their children talk about their learning.

My daughters attend a different district than where I work, and I will be missing my own 6th grader's conferences because I have to be here at work. But I am not even really sorry. Her conferences are conducted with all teachers in the cafeteria and parents have to wait and wait and wait to see each teacher. How I long for them to hold conferences where my child takes ownership in the ability to tell me how she is progressing in her learning.

The staff of our middle school, grades 5 through 8, all take time in the days before conferences to help the students put their binders together. The students practice in their classes what they will say to their parents. They take it all very seriously.

Having the grade 6 intervention class this year, I was so excited to once again watch students prepare for sharing their classwork. We took time this morning to practice what they wanted to share from the intervention class. And some of them decided they wanted to share with the world as well. Below are videos from three students who wanted to practice for conferences and reflect on one piece of learning from our class. It would be awesome for them to see the reach of technology. Please leave them a comment with some feedback!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Tiers of Vocabulary Revisited

Last week I taught my grade 6 intervention block about the Tiers of Vocabulary. They spent most of last week reading, analyzing, and discussing words. On Friday, I did a quick writing-to-show-understanding to assess where the students are in their understanding of the Tiers. I gave them two options:
1. Write a letter to a parent or one of your other teachers to tell them what you have learned about the Tiers of Vocabulary.
2. Pretend you are a Tier 2 word and write a letter to your Tier 3 friend explaining why you are a harder word.

My reflection on these assignments showed me several things. 1) The two options were not created equally. The second option really was harder to do and the students who tried it were not really able to show understanding of the tiers. 2) Once again, I failed to give the students clear criteria about what I was looking for. (See my fluency post for more about matching criteria to assessment.) 3) If this were my classroom of 10 years ago, I'd have given grades and moved on, though most of the students are not showing me that they understand the tiers on a higher order thinking level. Teaching is so much more rewarding when learning is the motivating factor, not grades.

So I once again went back to the drawing board. I realized I was looking for the students to be able to do three things: to explain the tiers and how to know which words fit which tier, to give example words for each tier, and to explain why it is useful to know the tiers of vocabulary. I read over their assignments and grouped them into three categories:
1. The students who still had some confusion or misconceptions about the tiers themselves.
2. The students who could explain the tiers but who were only picking examples we'd already discussed in class.
3. The students who had good explanations and gave examples, but didn't include why it is useful to catagorize words this way.

Today we created 3 stations to address the three groups. The students in group one started at station one and once they cleared up their explanations, could move on to station two: giving examples, and then to station three: the "why" station. At the end of the class, most of the kids were ready for station 3. I have three students to confer with tomorrow. I am going to give these three the opportunity to explain the tiers orally because the writing part of the assignment was getting overwhelming for them.

And while I had a couple who could give me some reasons why the tiers might be useful, none of them are all the way there yet. And that is due in part to the fact that so far, we've just been categorizing. Next week, we will go back to the Mysteries of Ancient Poop article and start to look at how we use context clues to determine the meanings of words.
The pink highlights are Tier 2 words, the blue are Tier 3. What I want the students to discover is that they will encounter more Tier 2 words in a text and Tier 2 words are much less often defined in context, while Tier 3 words are quite often defined in context. These are the reasons why it is also important for teachers to know the tiers. Content teachers often focus on their Tier 3 words, when it is usually the Tier 2 words that give readers the most trouble in terms of comprehension.
Here are a couple of students sharing their assignments. You can hear that they have a good basic understanding of the tiers. I am hoping over the next week, we can deepen that understanding for the whole class.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Re-assessing how I assess fluency

I've really been doing a lot of thinking about students becoming the architects of their own learning. I have begun incorporating learning targets and having students do some self-assessment on those targets.
An example of learning targets with stoplighting stickers. The students applied the stickers to indicate how they think they are progressing towards the targets.
What I noticed was that in terms of fluency, my students didn't have a clear picture of the criteria. And this is despite the fact that we use this rubric to talk about fluency:
I decided to put the rubric into a different format to see if I could break the criteria down better. I came up with our USIP Fluency House.
This is our class chart. Each student also has their own copy for their folders.
Our fluency house has four rooms. Today we focused on the speed room because that is mainly what they have been peer-assessing in the partner fluency checks. I broke the wpm down into a chart that let them know if they needed a lot of work, a little work, or if their speed was right on. The star colors signify this and I can tell at a glance how many students need to work on their speed. They put the appropriate color sticker on their personal fluency house as well, so I can see where individuals are just by looking in their folders.
The "speed" room close-up.
 Our next task will be to focus on the other rooms in the house. So far, I am the one best able to listening in order to assess using word phrases, intonation, and punctuation. But our plan is to find ways to audio or video tape each other so that the students can listen to themselves and their fluency partners to self- and peer-assess for those areas of fluency.

I am hoping that by breaking down fluency in this way, the students will be better able to create specific fluency goals for themselves and concentrate on their weak area. I also hope that this format will allow the students whose wpm is WAY above 150 to see that they may be reading too quickly and that their ability to use intonation or follow punctuation is being negatively affected by their speed.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Tiers of Vocabulary....with kids!

Last year I held an inservice for my middle and high school staffs about the Common Core State Standards. In going through the vocabulary standards, we spent some time talking about Elizabeth Beck's tiers of vocabulary. You can read in-depth about the tiers in Beck's book, Bringing Words to Life. In a nutshell (or a graphic organizer) here are the tiers described:
Most of our words fit in tier one. In tier three, the words are very specialized. We tend to encounter them infrequently. Tier two words can show up in any class. They are words we use more often in writing to make our writing "juicy" or more specific. Tier two is general academic language as well; words like analyze, synthesize, defend.

Can you tell from my graphic organizer that I decided to teach kids about the tiers of vocabulary? I began with the graphic organizer. Then I did an activity where I put Tier 1, Tier 2, and Tier 3 signs on three different tables (one sign per table.) I put a bunch of words on index cards, handed them out to the kids and telling them to go to it. I let them decide if they wanted to work alone or talk to others. Here's what the activity looked like:
Grade 6 girls debate whether a word should go on the Tier 2 table.
After the students were done placing their word cards, we stood at each table, starting with Tier 1 table. I asked the students to look over the words and make sure they agreed with all of them. Occasionally, they would want to debate one and we would sometimes leave the word, and sometimes move it. The students realized that some words might be able to fit in Tier 1 for one person and be a Tier 2 word for someone else.
The words the students put in Tier 3.

After this activity, we were ready to apply our new knowledge to a piece of reading. I chose an article from Dig magazine called The Mysteries of Ancient Poop. Cuz, seriously, what sixth grader doesn't want to read about poop!? The students really focused on vocabulary, pulling out Tier 3 words like archaeologist and coprolite (the scientific name for ancient poop!) and Tier 2 words like excavate and comparison. Their thinking was deep, their discussions about words were heated but respectful. It was so fun to watch them!

The students have realized the importance of focusing on Tier 2 words. They see that they are often harder to understand because they are often abstract words, while Tier 3 words are often long and hard to pronounce but represent concrete things. So next week, we will take some of their Tier 2 words and start to talk about context clues and what strategies we can use to figure out what these words mean.

It is so amazing to see their interest in words grow. To see them work with joy and excitement to analyze and talk about words. I can't wait to see what they figure out next!

ADDENDUM: Thinking about these vocabulary activities with a lens of formative assessment and triangulation of data (gathering student evidence through conferences, observations, and products) I was cognizant of being aware of the understanding of every student. The sorting activity allowed me to make great observations. I looked for evidence of understanding or confusion in their faces and body language. When I saw a student wavering between Tiers but working alone, I conferred with that student, asking questions like, "What are you thinking about that word?" or "What might be making you lean toward Tier 2?" And during the debrief when we all stood around tables, each student had the opportunity to explain the placement of a word. Their classmates listened and asked questions or made arguments to push their thinking, giving lots of peer feedback. Who needs summative assessments when you can gather all the evidence of success that you need formatively? :)