Igniting a love of reading through literature circles

One of the biggest successes of the last few years for me has been the growth I’ve seen in students through the incorporation of Literature Circles into our reading day. The type of growth I’ve seen spans both quantitative and qualitative measures, including significant improvements in reading benchmarking scores and individual NAPLAN results. Most important is the growth I’ve seen in student attitudes to reading, ability to think deeply and talk about what they read and make connections to other texts and to the world around them to help them understand both.

So what are literature circles and how have we done it?

There are lots of different ways of going about introducing literature circles and numerous blogs, books and guides on the topic. I’m not a fan of the approach that uses ‘roles’ to introduce students to the concept – I have found, even when used as an initial scaffold, they’re still too restrictive and students tend to get stuck in thinking in set ways.

To begin with, we started with great books. That sounds like a given but there is so much ‘fast fiction’ on the market these days and much of it is specifically targeted at schools. To have really good quality discussions about books, you have to start with really good quality books and here are some of the characteristics to look for:

  • rich vocabulary slightly beyond the level of the intended readers;
  • texts with real life themes that will have students asking and contemplating big questions;
  • complex plots with twists that leave the reader wondering what is coming next;
  • relatable characters with all the wonderful and flawed human characteristics;
  • books that students of this age generally wouldn’t choose for themselves.

While this all might seem like a big ask, there are many, many books out there that fit the bill. There is a list of potential title for consideration at the end of this blog.

Getting started – dangling the bait

One of the differences between excited and flat students when it comes to reading is exciting or flat teachers when they talk about reading. I know that sounds harsh but it makes such a difference – enthusiasm is contagious and a vibe students want to be part of. The first step in our literature circles is giving brief book talks about each title on offer to help students decide which is the right text for them. We tell them a synopsis of what the book is about and the genre, the level of vocabulary they’re likely to encounter, something about the main character and their traits and any connections to other titles (eg, “If you loved watching/reading Harry Potter, you’ll love this book!”). Students then get a short time to read the blurb and sample the first page. We stress how important it is to choose a ‘just right’ text for them – enough challenge to allow them to practise their growing skills but not so much that every chapter is a struggle. Students then finish by writing a list of their favourite 4 books to help us put them into groups.

Grouping students

Our students are grouped according to their choice of books. It’s rare that we can give everyone their first choice as we only have 5 copies of each title and their tends to be a certain buzz around certain books each time, often dependent on the chatter from the previous round of literature circles. However we ensure all students get one of the four they chose. If students have chosen a book that will be very challenging for them, we’ll have a discussion with them about this – not to put them off but to make them aware and plan some supports for them to be successful. These might include us getting an audio copy of the book, arranging sessions to read it with someone else or a weekly conference before our literature circle meeting to check in and prepare.

Let the discussions begin

We do a lot of work during our whole class reading sessions on different comprehension strategies and model a lot of how to talk about texts and these developing skills are evident in the way students talk at the start of literature circles. We’ve never needed particular roles to get students talking and, while some students are quieter than others, all have something to say at their own level of understanding. Our roles in the groups are as facilitators and it gives us the opportunity to model the talk we want to hear and to thrown in prompting questions or wonderings to move the talk on to the next level. For example, students might be discussing what has happened in the latest chapters at a quite literal level, talking to understand and recall events. Throwing a question in about why an author included that event or why they’ve written about it from a particular perspective sometimes leads to a bit of quiet thinking time then takes the talk off in another way. We also model how to agree or disagree with someone else’s ideas and how to build on to what they said (rather than repeat it).

What about when they don’t?

Some groups find the conversations easier than others. In some, I sit back and watch as the discussion pings around, arguments and debates happen (respectfully) and themes are suggested.

Some groups seem to sit in silence for a long time, looking awkwardly at each other and waiting for us to step in. We deal with this firstly through encouraging students to be prepared – we ask them to write very brief chapter summaries before coming to the group along with post it notes about any questions they have as they read or words they don’t understand. These are often a great jumping off point for meeting discussions – what were the key parts of the chapters? What vocabulary did the author use – which bits did you like and which bits didn’t you understand? Can we work it out together? Why didn’t the author use an easier word there – why that one?

Little by little, groups gain confidence and are more readily able to talk about what they’ve read. There will always be some students who find it hard to talk in such situations – the preparation they do can help them a lot in feeling confident in speaking and feeling their contribution is valued when they do.

How do we assess it?

We use a checklist adapted from Fountas & Pinnell to track the progress of our students’ skills – in reading, asking questions, talking about themes, providing evidence, working out vocabulary but also in group skills such as including others, being prepared and managing conflict and dissent.

Collecting student chapter summaries is also a valuable source of assessment – they often start off overly detailed but manage to hone it down to the really important parts and key events or characters. Quite often, we produce written artefacts as we talk – character maps showing relationships that develop (or deteriorate), lists of traits of certain characters and evidence to show it or physical maps of locations to get our head around where the action is.

Great – where do I start!

We’ve been fortunate enough to have a few visitors over the past year come and watch literature circles in our classrooms and the question we always get is which books do we start with so that seems like the perfect place to end this blog. List of books below that we’ve used with our Grade 4-6 class:

  • Paper Planes (Steve Worland)
  • Holes (Louis Sacher)
  • The Loblolly Boy (James Norcliffe)
  • The White Tower (Cathryn Constable)
  • The One and Only Ivan (Katherine Applegate)
  • When you reach me (Rebecca Stead)
  • Somewhere around the corner (Jackie French)
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What does it take to be the ‘best and brightest’?

There has been another stir in the media recently about who should be allowed to become a teacher with the arguments centred on the ATAR (Year 12) score of those applying to teacher education courses. And, on the face of it, I agree – people aspiring to be teachers should demonstrate an ability to digest and teach the subject content required of them and a certain level of intelligence is required to do this.

This isn’t, however, as simple as reaching a certain ATAR score. How well you score on the specific assessments required during one year of your academic life are not a great overall indication of your intelligence or ability to engage with the subject matter.

My other issue is that it takes so much more than the ability to comprehend subject matter to become a teacher. It takes a high level of patience that must be maintained in the frenetic pace of school life. It takes empathy and the ability to see the world through a child’s eyes, considering their feelings and reactions and changing your tack accordingly. It takes strong organisational skills to be able to juggle the competing demands, continually changing regulations and requirements and varied tasks that take up your day. It takes skills in negotiation and mediation, managing both interactions with children and their parents as well as skills in collaborating with colleagues.

Throughout my 13 years as a teacher, I’ve been fortunate enough to mentor a number of pre-service teachers on their journeys and have found it’s these latter attributes that are harder to foster.

There is also the added complication that, even though you might be an adult with a natural aptitude for, say, maths and science, it doesn’t automatically mean that you will be skilled at creating the conditions required to build a similar level of knowledge in your students.

I could give a number of examples of colleagues with low ATAR scores who are outstanding educators, able to build such effective relationships with students and present material in just the right way to have brain lightbulbs pinging all over their classrooms. I could also tell you about an equal number of colleagues who received high ATAR scores and clearly were subject matter experts but who just couldn’t seem to connect or get through to the students they worked with.

So when you see another media report or education ‘expert’ discussing how important it is that we recruit our ‘best and brightest’ to teaching, consider what attributes being the ‘best and brightest’ might entail. Look beyond their ATAR score to the combination of academic strengths and personal qualities that are both vital in developing teachers that inspire, motivate and educate students.

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Image courtesy of https://www.flickr.com/photos/pagedooley/14254449604 

Celebrating the things we don’t measure

It’s that time of year when we take a few moments to stop and reflect. More formally, it’s time for our mid-year reviews to see how we’re going towards our performance and development goals.

One of these goals for me is around ‘student outcomes’ and, every year when I reflect on this, my biggest pondering is what a very, very narrow set of outcomes it is asking me to review. Specifically, the goal asks whether my students have made 6 months’ growth against state standards. I agree that this is certainly something to aim for. Some of them have made more, some have made just that and some have made less. However there are a lot of things these standards and, therefore, this goal, doesn’t measure and here are a few of the ways they’ve grown:

  • how much more my students now speak in weekly literature circle discussions and how well prepared they are for what they want to say;
  • how engrossed they are in reading and how invested they are in the characters they identify with;
  • the quality of their questioning and the deep thinking they do about what they read, identifying themes, ideas and wonderings that hadn’t occurred to me;
  • their heightened understanding of how certain text types can be very powerful and really get things done, as seen through the number of them wanting to write to different levels of government after our parliamentary excursion;
  • their confidence in managing their own learning and identifying their own goals, inside and outside of the classroom;
  • their growing time and resource management skills that now see some of them much more able to find the key items they need at the start of the day and end the day feeling organised;
  • the coping strategies they have developed to deal with their own times of stress or anxiety and which they now avail themselves of without any need for a reminder from me;
  • the empathy they have developed towards not only each other but towards fellow human beings in the world beyond our classroom, as evident in the ideas they have about how they can improve their world for everyone’s benefit.

I know, to other educators, this blog post is nothing new – we all know that the state standards will never capture all the things our students are and do however it’s more a reminder to be kind and fair to ourselves, particularly at these times of year. Our students are growing and developing in ways easily measurable and much less so and we should be proud of them and of our own impact in both sets of skills and attributes.

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Image file from http://www.publicdomainfiles.com/show_file.php?id=13546590029845

Assessment in the digital world….with a pencil

I’ve been a teacher for 13 years and there is one component of the job I just don’t ever seem to be able to fully, effectively manage – paperwork. Specifically, assessment paperwork. I start the year off with good intentions and, quite often, a folder neatly organised and labelled with appropriate headings, all ready to sort the rich evidence of learning of each of my students.

Regardless of what system I’ve devised over the holidays, I’m usually happy with it initially. Until about week 4. That’s when I start to see the flaws and it starts to become a little unruly before building up to unmanageable and I spend the rest of the year trying to backtrack and put band aid solutions, hobbling along and swearing next year will be different. Which it always is…with the same results.

I think the crux of it is that my digital life is very organised and orderly, my paper life less so however my assessment is a real mix of the two. Finding a way to merge all of that without duplication (because who has time for that?) has been the challenge which I feel like I might have got on top of this year.

Two things have made a real difference to my assessment this year – Microsoft OneNote and my Apple pencil.

I wasn’t initially a convert to OneNote – I found it to be a bit glitchy and wasn’t entirely convinced it did enough to warrant me moving over to it. It was pretty but didn’t have any additional functionality that I needed. However the real clincher was my Apple pencil – suddenly the benefits of OneNote were clear – an organised space for my digital records with multiple sections that I could type in and write on as well as store documents. All in a friendly, vaguely paper looking format.

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My current setup for my reading conference notes looks like this – a summary page at the start with hyperlinks to individual pages for each of the student records. The different colours on dates are for the fact that I share my grade with another teacher so this solution allows us both to take notes and know where the other teacher is up to.

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The individual pages look something like this. You might be wondering where my handwritten bit comes in as it’s all looking very spreadsheet-ish at the moment. Firstly, I take my running records on my iPad. No longer do I have to waste paper or ink on printing them out, only to file them then shred them at the end of the year. I take them in Notability, save them and attach them directly below the notes of that session so it’s all accessible.

Below each student’s record, I also keep a copy of the ‘Fountas and Pinnell behaviours to notice and teach’ and I (physically) tick & date each of the behaviours when I see them to help me figure out the student’s next area of learning in reading.

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So far, so good. I love the fact that it’s all tidy and in one spot as well as the ease of use when multiple teachers need to access student’s assessment results. Their writing records are being kept in a similar way and have allowed me to take snapshots of students’ work, annotate it and keep it all organised. Who knew that all it would take to bring me over to digital record keeping was…..a pencil?!

How do you organise your reading conference notes? Do you prefer digital or paper records?

I’m back…and still a macgirl

This blog has been around for rather a long time. I believe I started it nearly 8 years ago which, in internet years, makes it at least 25. However it hasn’t held the allure in recent years and I have been pondering why. I still love writing and am a lot more prolific on my running blog. I still love teaching and learning, both within and beyond my classroom walls. For some reason, the spark doesn’t seem to carry through to writing about it once I’m at home. And there are lots of reasons for that – some simple and some a lot more complex. Perhaps they should become blog posts of their own. But I digress.

Aspects of my teaching have been revitalised recently by my new purchase – an iPad pro. While I might (thanks to Department policy) be limited to using a PC during school hours, I really am still drawn to Apple and am a macgirl at heart. My new toy is proving this, especially with the addition of an apple pencil which has been a complete game changer. Despite only having had it for a short time, I’m lost without it. Whether I’m at PD, in a meeting, in front of the class or sitting next to a student having a conference, it’s given me a huge range of options I didn’t have before. I promise to elaborate soon – I’m brewing a blog post about how I’m using my iPad to turbo boost assessment and record keeping in my classroom and will publish soon. For tonight, I just wanted to put it out there that, while I didn’t go away, I’m well and truly back. And absolutely still a macgirl 🍎.

ALEA conference 2016 – day 2

I’m a little delayed on this blog post due to the enormity of thoughts floating around in my head after 3 days of intense learning. Forgive me. Here is as coherent a summary as I can manage.

The power of the word – Jenni Connor

This was my first keynote of the day and Jenni grabbed me early as she spoke of the importance of a childhood rich in books and literacy experiences, something I’ve blogged about before and which I am particularly passionate about. She talked of how, to truly grow a lifelong reader, we need to let them read rich and inviting texts, not necessarily those which are age appropriate or at the right level for them. She provided us with some rich examples of quality literature, in picture books I’d forgotten about, such as The Coat by Julie Hunt and Ron Brooks, but also in places you wouldn’t imagine, such as the powerful writing of Stan Grant in his speech for The Ethics Centre on racism and the Australian dream.

Jenni also ranged into novels and spoke of Morris Gleitzman’s ‘Once‘ with its honest, raw and child centred portrayal of a horrific time in the world. This novel and all that it embodies sums up for me another of her key messages – the power of fiction really is in its lessons of empathy beyond our own lived experiences. As a young child, I was fortunate enough to experience actual life in both the UK and Australia but the diversity of experience I was exposed to was much broader thanks to the range of texts I read or had read to me.

Narrative and creativity: Where do they fit in today’s schools? – Misty Adoniou

I love hearing Misty speak and still count the keynote I attended at last year’s conference as amongst the most powerful professional development I have been part of.

To begin with, Misty spoke about the messy, competing demands and critical thinking required by engaging with multimodal texts in the real world then considered whether this was the case with those neatly packaged, single genre texts encountered by students in the classroom. In fact, it was a speech of considering contrasts – literacy as skill acquisition vs literacy as meaning making being the next. As a primary teacher, this is one I often grapple with, particularly in writing. While students obviously need to develop a whole range of skills and will need varying amounts of time and practise to build them, there is no point in developing such skills in the absence of meaning and purpose. Grammatically correct sentences with sturdy punctuation make no difference if there is no one to read them.

Misty finished with an idea that resonated that helped bring the contrasts to a point – perhaps part of our role in school is providing students with additional skills, opportunities and beliefs that, in conjunction with those from their home environments, allow them to exist in and create in a third space, separate from but informed by (and enriched by) both. I like that concept a lot and I think it helps me reconcile my role as an educator – not there to be the only element in a child’s education, just part of the complex mix that will support and extend their life choices.

Using picture books to explicitly teach about language – Robyn English

A thread that was very common throughout the conference was the power of narrative, particularly picture books, for learners of all ages. This session was no exception and provided both multiple great picture books as well as novel and interesting ways to use them with students.

One of the games I liked was a ‘grammar by dice roll’ game where students were given sentences from favourite picture books and, based on the roll of a dice, were encouraged to…

1 – change the verb

2 – add an adjective to the second noun

3 – add an adverb

4 – add a circumstance

5 – add detail to the subject noun

6 – add a circumstance that includes a conjunction and a pronoun

I could see this being a lot of fun, especially playing with language from texts that my student already loved and were familiar with.

Another activity involved using vocabulary from familiar books and asking students to discuss and justify which was the odd one out of each line. This takes the skills beyond just knowing what the word means and requires students to think more broadly and argue for their point of view.Cm5tHk-WIAA03wc

Overall, another great day of ideas and wonderings.

Day 3 post to follow soon…

ALEA conference 2016 – day 1 reflections

Well timed to end the school holidays on an inspirational note, this weekend is the ALEA conference being held in Adelaide.

Literacy & imagination: schools as wondering places and spaces?

The conference started with a keynote from Barbara Comer  encouraging us to consider teachers as ‘imaginative designers, weavers and researchers’ rather than bound by templates and programs which restrict us and limit opportunities for our students. It set the scene for the rest of the weekend well – these conferences are always an energetic mix of new ideas and revisiting more familiar but forgotten ones and I always leave feeling full of possibility. So being reminded that, as teachers, we are responsible for researching, interpreting and implementing ideas, woven as an intricate and specifically crafted tapestry was exactly what I needed to hear.

Students with literacy difficulties: Same and different

Anne Bayetto presented about the needs of students who experience difficulties with literacy and the message was both clear and reassuring – on the whole, all students, whether experiencing difficulties or not, have similar needs, including requiring cognitive level tasks and dignified access to a range of aural, visual, print and digital texts.

Most importantly, students who are experiencing difficulty need to speak, listen and read more. Activities involving cutting and pasting, colouring, drawing and, generally, doing ‘busy work’ are not likely to have any impact and will further disadvantage students.

Anne spoke of some great resources to encourage speaking and listening:

Embedding oral language across the curriculum

This presentation was full of both new material and reminders of things I used to do but which need to be revived in my classroom. The concept of ‘hands down’ to ensure all children have an opportunity and an expectation to speak and participate is an important one which needs to be developed as the culture of the classroom and school. Too often, quiet or less confident students are able to fly under the radar during sessions involving oral language, deferring to those who more confidently raise their hands. Sheena Cameron and Louise Dempsey suggested a number of different strategies to encourage greater participation during speaking activities, such as:

  • allowing adequate thinking time for students when using ‘think, pair, share’;
  • turning it into ‘think, pair, square’ with student pairs becoming a group of 4 to provide more opportunity for student talk;
  • compass partners (one name at north, one at south, one at east and one at west) so that students are quickly able to find a partner during oral language activities;
  • a listening triad where one student is speaking, one is purely listening/responding and the other is recording.

Another great reminder from this presentation is that, as teachers, we ask a lot of questions throughout our day and this isn’t the only way to prompt and provoke student discussion. Comments and statements can be just as effectively used to get students talking – the important part is that we provide quality and meaningful reasons for them to speak that are relevant to them. It would be frustrating for our students to be asked to talk about thing that aren’t worth talking about from their perspective.

This presentation in particular has given me food for thought – so much so that I went and bought their new book, The Oral Language Book. Looking forward to diving into that one and exploring more possibilities for student talk in my classroom.