Growing teachers

I have been fortunate this year to mentor a variety of pre-service teachers in my classroom. Yes, I genuinely mean ‘fortunate’ because the experience is one I’m grateful for, despite the undisputable extra work that it adds. As well as being an opportunity to support and influence the next generation of teachers, it also allows me to see my own teaching through their eyes. It has equally made me reflect on the experiences I had as a pre-service teacher and how they helped me grow into the teacher I am.

One of the most powerful things we can do for our pre-service teachers is give them room – to try things, to flounder a bit, to explore their interests and skills (as well as the things that make them uncomfortable), to make mistakes, to figure out how to fix them. I always hope my pre-service teachers will arrive full of ideas, enthusiasm and an eagerness to jump in and try things. If they don’t, I encourage them with gentle-ish nudges and reminders that this is a safe space with my support for them to work on honing their teaching craft. I reassure them that I don’t expect perfect lessons (not from them or myself) but I expect lessons where they try things and then reflect on their successes and next areas of learning. As much as I want to, I try not to help them out too soon when things go wrong, just give them space and ask the questions that might help them dig their way out of the hole themselves.

We also owe it to our pre-service teachers to give them useful, honest feedback that helps them recognise their strengths and be realistic about the areas they need to develop. Whenever I’m having conversations that involve feedback for my pre-service teachers, I think of how I’ll feel if they end up being a colleague in a couple of years and what support and guidance I’ll wish they’d been given at this crucial point in their career. Telling a pre-service teacher that their tone when speaking to a child contributed to the child’s reaction is the perfect teaching moment, especially when thinking how this may help them in the future and what strategies they can use to change their thinking and behaviours before they become entrenched.

I’m also a firm believer that we need to help our pre-service teachers see how their learning at university provides a solid foundation on which to build their teaching, rather than teaching rounds and university being two separate and distinct sets of learning. I get frustrated when I hear teachers comment that university wasn’t helpful and that they learnt everything they needed once they started teaching. Obviously I’ve only been through one teaching degree so I can’t comment on the preparation from every university but I can say I felt as prepared as I could be. Of course there were things that I didn’t know and my first few years of teaching were the most intense period of induction but I felt like the learning I’d done at university gave me a solid foundation and an understanding of the bigger picture of education into which my day to day teaching fitted. My teaching rounds had helped bridge the gap for me while also giving me access to some outstanding mentors from whom I soaked up every bit of knowledge, experience and guidance I could.

I can only hope that I am providing as successful and useful an experience for my pre-service teachers as I was lucky enough to receive on my teaching rounds and I look forward to continuing to strive to be an effective mentor to our growing teachers.

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Digikids and the quandry of the declining literacy levels

I watched the Four Corners ‘Digikids’ program last night and it got me thinking, as I’m prone to do, about the various literacy debates and where we’re heading.

To begin with, I felt like the program lacked a clear focus – it was about declining literacy levels but skipped from questioning whether this was a lack of direct phonics instruction to how well prepared teaching graduates are to what influence technology has on the whole equation.

And then I realised that perhaps that’s actually the crux of it – literacy education is complex with so many contributing factors. To run a story on just one component would have been an attempt to oversimplify a challenging issue with so many threads, yet that’s so often what people try to do.

Early on in the program, that comment was made that “the current system isn’t working for every child” and I absolutely and wholeheartedly agree with this. However I don’t know that any one system ever will as students are all different, bringing a range of skills, experiences and dispositions so it is fair to assume that ‘one size fits all’ won’t work. While we also know a lot of about the elements that make reading instruction effective thanks to extensive research on the topic, there’s still ample discussion on how much of each element is needed and how they should be delivered. The way I see it, the key elements of reading instruction are the proven science of reading and the combination of how much, how often and what it looks like in the classroom are the art.

I have no intention to get into a ‘phonics vs …’ debate because I don’t understand why it has to be phonics vs anything. Why can’t it be phonics + other things? Reading is a complex act that involves not only working out what the squiggles on a page say but also what they mean directly and through implication. Phonics definitely has an important role to play but I’ve also experienced students who arrive in Grade 5 believing they are star readers because they can decode every word of complex text yet can’t tell you a single thing about what they’ve read. I’m also dubious of any method being suggested that involves a whole class of students sitting in front of a teacher repeating sounds over and over with no consideration of what they already know. Where I’ve seen direct phonics instruction be particularly effective it was with small groups of students where sounds and the required practise could be targeted to their needs and gaps.

I also couldn’t help but be plagued with an overwhelming feeling that some people are longing to turn back time to a utopian era where everyone was literate….that never actually existed. Implying that the current system is the only one that has ever ‘failed’ students is wrong – educational history is littered with people who didn’t achieve equally.

So I finish watching still with many, many wonderings and I think that’s a good thing.  One of my wonderings I’ll just leave hanging here as a blog post for another time – are literacy levels actually dropping or is what being literate looks like changing in our modern, digital world?

Literature circles with a side of technology

I’ve just finished reading ‘Literature circles: Voice and choice in book clubs and reading groups‘ by Harvey Daniels – a great read that both reaffirmed and made me reflect on my own practice and what areas I could improve. I’ve been using literature circles in my own classroom and those I’ve coached in for 6 years and have certainly made lots of minor tweaks and major changes over that time as I learnt from and with the students.

This year, technology has crept more into our literature circles in small but subtle ways to further enhance what we do.

In our classroom, we have been using the app ‘Equity maps‘ as a way of capturing the discussion, quantifying student involvement and tracking (ultimately to reduce) teacher talk in our literature circle groups. This app allows you to use an iPad to track who is speaking during a group session so that a clear picture of who speaks and how often emerges. I had thought I was keeping my input to a minimum but this app gave me the evidence that that wasn’t the case. It also records the meeting, allowing me to go back later when I have more time to listen more intently to the types of comments and questions students made and what they might need help with next.

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At the request of our students, we’ve also provided a virtual classroom for each of groups, setting up a Google classroom for each of our books. This has seen discussion between students outside of school hours about the chapters they’ve read as well as sharing time and task management strategies and reminders to help everyone stay on track. Initially I was a little concerned that these spaces might increase my own workload but I now realise that these virtual classrooms aren’t about me and don’t really require me (other than as an occasional visitor) – the students are using them in interesting, purposeful and valid ways on their own.

We’re nearly at the end of this round of literature circles and, with the chaos of term 4, may not get time for another round this year. We traditionally finish off with a book review to help the next round of readers decide on their book however we’re considering book trailers this year as a more powerful way of both students showing their learning and influencing others.

I’m also starting to reflect and plan for what things we might improve in the new year. What other opportunities could technology provide for us? I’m keen for us to utilise technology to take our learning and discussion beyond our classroom – meeting in virtual spaces with other readers to discuss our books? Offering access to our virtual classrooms to students from other schools to join in?

In what ways does technology add to your literature circles or books clubs in your classroom?

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)

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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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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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?