Collaborative Constructivism in Language Arts Class

At several professional development sessions I attended this year, the speaker reminded us, “The person doing the talking is the one doing the learning.” This hits home for me because I am a constructivist at heart. It is one of my core beliefs that adolescents need social interaction in order to engage with the material and discovery to cement the learning. To that end, one of the instructional techniques I use nearly daily is that of Gradual Release of Responsibility (“I do, We do, You do” process), but I usually begin with the step: “You do together.” I find that the students are very motivated by the challenge of “figuring things out” and end up retaining the material better.

An example of how I use collaborative inquiry is with grammar, usage, and mechanics (G.U.M.) instruction. We are studying the characteristics of a personal narrative so today’s lesson was on dialogue punctuation rules. Rather than going through a book, worksheet, or power point, I had the students open up their choice reading books to a page with dialogue. Working as a group, they determined the rules of how to use commas, quotation marks, capital letters, paragraph breaks, and dialogue tags and wrote their responses in a chart. After they finished, we shared and they all added any missing information to their chart. Finally, I gave them the actual rules for punctuating dialogue and they determined which ones they had gotten correct (resulting in lots of cheering) and which ones they had overlooked. The culminating practice assignment was to write a properly punctuated conversation between themselves and another person (real or fantasy/positive or negative) with each person speaking at least three times. The feedback from the students was that the assignment was great fun and all were fully engaged in writing their conversations.

This same process works well with other topics such as capital letter or comma use, but I also use this technique for lessons beyond G.U.M.. For example, last week, I distributed a stack of eight brief memoir mentor texts to each group. Working together, they each read a couple and then attempted to determine the commonalities between the texts. I was pleasantly surprised at their rich discussion and the resulting list of qualities and characteristics of personal narratives they compiled. They hit the nail on the head and I didn’t have to lecture once. I am excited to read what they write as a result.

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Just Because It’s Fun, Doesn’t Mean It’s Easy

I’ll admit it—I enjoy being known as one of the “fun” teachers in school. It gives me great satisfaction to know that my students enjoy coming to class and that they often share what we do with their parents when they get home. I work tirelessly to present material in ways that are not only effective, but also enjoyable. It gives me pleasure to hear their giggles in the middle of an activity. It’s one of the reasons I continue to love my job even after all of these years.

Unfortunately, there are many colleagues who are not so enamored of my fun class. They are under the misperception that students enjoy my class because it is fun and therefore easy. Some have even said as much. They don’t believe the students could possibly be engaged in rigorous educational endeavors. This is absolutely not the case.

To these other teachers, rigor (by the way, I hate that word when applied to education) usually just means hard. It means more worksheets or problems assigned every night. It means the teacher drones on and on while requiring students to take copious amounts of notes. It means rote learning and very little critical thinking. It means they are not allowed to “help” each other learn. It means the child’s interest in or connection to the material is irrelevant. It means assignments that might be beyond the reach of their students. It means that many students fail their tests. It means many students dislike their class.

I strongly believe in what two of my edu-heroes say about rigor. Both Kylene Beers and Harvey Daniels say that there can be rigor without rigor mortis. This first time I heard each of them say that, I wrote it down in my notebook with a huge exclamation point next to it. It truly speaks to my philosophy of teaching.

Below, I will give an example of how I teach a fairly boring required skill (comma usage) in a way that challenges and engages my students. These are some of the activities my students do in class. I don’t use all of them every time and there are a few more not listed here. They are in no particular order.

  1. I show funny examples of comma misuse (such as this one) so they can see how commas avoid confusion.
  2. I show funny examples (such as this one) of how commas placed in different locations change the meaning of the sentence.
  3. We discuss the ongoing debate about the use of the Oxford comma.
  4. I give them a set of mentor text passages using all of the different types of comma usage. I have them work in partners or groups to see if they can determine the rule being exemplified in each passage. We share these together to make a master list. They are so excited when they get them right.
  5. They do scavenger hunts in their choice reading books for interesting sentences with commas to share and determine the rule being used. The more advanced version is to have them work together to find examples of every comma rule.
  6. They become human commas to punctuate sentences. I have a group of students write a sentence a couple of words at a time on individual white boards. I have them line up in order and the human commas must stand in the correct positions.
  7. I give them a passage using all of the different comma rules but with the commas missing. I tell them there are exactly X number of commas in the passage and challenge them to find every one. They generally work on this in pairs, but it could also be an informal assessment.
  8. I show them a video such as Flocabulary’s Comma Camp. There are other songs about commas online, but I have not yet used any of them.
  9. If they want to practice more at home, they can play online games. NOTE: these change often and I preview them every year, so I did not provide a link.

Over the years my students have enjoyed all of these activities. At no time was there a lecture with me requiring them to take notes and there was a lot of collaboration involved. Many of these activities require strong critical thinking skills as well. Most importantly, they remembered what they had learned because they were active participants. One of them even bought me this plaque because she saw it while on vacation and determined that I had to have it.

There’s no reason that the serious business of education needs to be serious. So the next time you hear laughter coming from the classroom of the teacher next door, please don’t assume the students are goofing around. My students aren’t.

 

The Shiny, Happy Classroom

One of my favorite bands is R.E.M. They wrote this fluffy little song called “Shiny, Happy People” and hearing it always makes me smile. I want my students to have this same experience when they think of my classroom. I want thoughts of life in Room 132 to bring a smile. These are some of the steps I take to try to make that happen.

As teachers begin this school year, their thoughts undoubtedly turn to the classroom climate they want to establish and maintain. One question that I am often asked (especially by newer teachers) is what kind of classroom management program I use. My answer is that I don’t. What I prefer instead is to develop a classroom that does not call for a system to handle misbehavior because it so rarely occurs. No checkmarks on the board, no list of consequences, no rewards. Just engaged, productive, friendly students.

I won’t go into the many well-known programs for establishing a positive classroom climate, but all it takes is one quick Google search to retrieve millions of hits. There are dozens of books on the subject already written and more arriving every day. I feel much of developing a positive classroom climate is common sense about all how to treat people. After all, our students are people and should be afforded the same graces many of us save for our significant others, friends, and families.

In my experience, there are three things that need to happen for a shiny, happy classroom to exist.

1) Students must feel safe,
2) Students must feel valued, and
3) Students must feel successful.

Safe:

In order for a classroom to be safe, it must be under control. This does not mean that a teacher needs to be authoritarian dominating every aspect of its function. It means that a teacher needs to be authoritative and implement policies and procedures that encourage physical, social, and emotional security. A safe classroom is not that difficult to achieve by following a few basic tenets.

1. Hold high expectations of all students.

This does not mean the same expectations of all students, but rather a high, but achievable standard for each child.

Give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that they will do the right thing the majority of the time.

Believe that they can all reach their potential. For that matter, believe that they all HAVE potential.

2. Be firm but fair.

Firm does not mean overly strict or outright mean. It means choosing your battles and determining what is most important to you and having a legitimate reason for that policy.

Students remember nit-picky things like failing a paper because they forgot to put their name on top and it will only damage the relationship in the long run. Is their name in the upper, right-hand corner REALLY the most important thing to you?

3. Model the behavior you wish to see from students.

You cannot be overly emotional or dramatic on a regular basis in front of the students. There is nothing scarier to some students than a teacher who randomly flies off the handle and explodes at unexpected times. On the other hand, I have seen students make it a game to be the one to send a “yeller” over the edge. Mood swings of any kind generally make others uncomfortable and they will begin to block you out.

Don’t tell them they need to pay attention when you are talking and then be a bad listener when they speak.

Don’t tell them they need to be respectful of others and then “tease” some of the students. If you expect them to be kind to one another, then you must also be kind.

Valued:

I wrote about this more extensively in a previous post (The Classroom Where Everyone Knows Your Name), so I will only briefly reiterate those ideas.

1. Get to know students as individuals.

A positive rapport with your students is the secret weapon when it comes to having a happy classroom. If this does not exist, nothing else you try will ever work.

If you know a little bit about the children beyond the classroom, it will go along way. Integrate their interests into the classroom.

2. Always maintain their dignity.

Sometimes it is necessary to have a discussion with a child about his/her behavior, but it should not be done in front of other students and should never humiliate a student.

Whenever possible, determine a solution to a problem WITH a student rather than imposing your will on them. Giving them the tools to manage their own behavior is much more effective than you deciding how to control them.

3. Choose your words carefully

You are your words—so choose wisely. Always bear in mind that your words have the power to uplift or crush a child. Use your power for good, not evil.

Successful:

If a student is not doing well in my classroom, I bear some responsibility. As a teacher, I must do everything in my power to find an avenue for that child to succeed academically. Yes, this is a lot of work and often involves circumstances beyond my control, but if I expect their best effort, I must give mine as well.

1. Provide engaging instruction

Make sure you know what you are doing before you step in front of the students. Nothing undermines you more than not appearing as if you had a plan.

Incorporate novelty, technology, collaboration, etc. when appropriate to the content. (I find Dave Burgess’s Teach Like a Pirate to have brilliant ideas for getting students’ attention.)

2. Whenever possible, allow for choice and student directed learning.

A student-centered classroom is crucial for all students to succeed.

3. Clearly communicate your expectations for the assignment.

Students can’t hit a target that they can’t see.

Don’t make them guess what you were looking for. Let students know what a quality assignment looks like in advance.

4. Provide regular, constructive feedback.

There is no place for a “gotcha” grade at the end of an assignment. Students should know their strengths and weaknesses and work on improving BEFORE it “counts.”

5. Nurture and celebrate their successes.

6. It’s okay to have fun. “Don’t smile until Christmas” is ridiculous and was bad advice even when it was new.

Inquiry + Gradual Release of Responsibility = A Recipe for Success

I’m a big fan of Dewey, Piaget, Vygotsky, Bandura, and Bruner, and their ideas strongly influence my teaching. The Gradual Release of Responsibility model of instruction is built on the foundation of their work and appeals to me for many reasons. I have found that inquiry plus GRR has been invaluable in deepening student understanding in my language arts class classroom.

Over the years, I’ve discovered how important it is to scaffold instruction so that students are not turned loose before they are ready and able to be successful. In my opinion, the most beneficial part of the GRR model I use is a form of structured inquiry toward the beginning of the process. It really cements the learning. I’ve outlined my argumentative writing instruction below.

Focus Step: I set the stage with providing the learning focus: Argumentative Writing. We discussed where students might see this type of writing in real life, what forms it may take, and a working definition of the term argumentative.

Structured Inquiry Step: Students worked in groups. I provided each group with multiple examples of exemplary argumentative mentor texts in various forms—editorials, student samples, blog posts, magazine articles, political writing, etc. Their task was to closely read these texts, determine as a group what commonalities they observed, and record their findings.

Guided Instruction Step: Groups took turns sharing their findings with the whole class. The information was compiled on the whiteboard. I then provided explicit instruction in a mini-lesson about how the characteristics they “noticed” fit into argumentative writing using correct academic vocabulary. (They were very excited to have figured these out on their own.) Together, we determined possibilities for organizing the information. They used these as the foundation for strong persuasive writing.

 Group Work Step: The student groups choose a topic to argue. They wrote their arguments and evidence in note form and then organized the information logically. Each group determined their best idea, and then fleshed out this idea into a full paragraph that they shared with the entire class.

Independent Learning Step: I then gave them the opportunity to practice and apply what they discovered in some fun, low-stakes persuasive writing exercises (to be detailed in a future post). Finally, students chose a topic of personal meaning and wrote their own argumentative paper.

 Assessment/Reflection Step: As a class, we determined an informal rubric containing the characteristics previously determined to be used for self-assessment and reflection. They shared their writing with others for feedback, evaluated themselves, conferenced with me for feedback, made adjustments as necessary, and then submitted a polished piece.

I use various versions of this model for many topics I teach. It has been successful for me and I hope your version of Gradual Release of Responsibility works as well for you.

The Class Where Everybody Knows Your Name

I believe that students won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. Once they realize this—watch out! The potential for learning in your class will be limitless.

When I was in high school, I started watching “Cheers” on TV. I watched in part because Coach made me laugh, but mostly because I loved the theme song. Every time the singer crooned,

“Sometimes you want to go

Where everybody knows your name,

and they’re always glad you came.

You wanna be where you can see,

our troubles are all the same

You wanna be where everybody knows

Your name”

I would think to myself: Yes. Yes, I do want to go to this magical place where everyone liked me and choruses would erupt when I walked in the door. How great would that be? Who wouldn’t want that?

Since I was a child, I was a good student and well behaved so I was largely ignored by teachers and never encouraged to reach for more than just getting good grades. Most teachers knew little else about me besides my academic standing and they didn’t seem to want to know more. I lost count of the number of times I was called by some other dark-haired girl’s name. (The principal even said my name incorrectly when announcing my scholarship at graduation!) I got the message that hard work and good behavior was all that was expected of me. I got used to being invisible. I never stood up for myself. I shut down emotionally. Even though I loved learning, I never liked middle or high school. I wonder if this may have been different if any adult outside of my immediate family had ever told me that I mattered and that I was enough. (See Angela Maiers’ “You Matter Manifesto.”) However, it did make me the kind of teacher that I am, and my students benefit from what I never had.

My sister’s best friend, a teacher, was featured on Oprah Winfrey’s show finale so I watched when I normally did not. I’m glad I did. Oprah said something that has stayed with me ever since: “I’ve talked to nearly 30,000 people on this show, and all 30,000 had one thing in common: They all wanted validation. If I could reach through this television and sit on your sofa or sit on a stool in your kitchen right now, I would tell you that every single person you will ever meet shares that common desire. They want to know: ‘Do you see me? Do you hear me? Does what I say mean anything to you?” She put into words what I wanted a child and what I want for my students. This is my idea of the perfect classroom—a place where every student feels acknowledged, validated, and cherished.

My classroom climate is based on this ideal. I want every child to know that I see them. I hear them. They matter to me. I spend a great deal of time and energy getting to know them personally to achieve this environment. The first few days of my class are devoted to learning their names and a bit about them. Several years ago I received one of the best compliments I’ve ever been given by a student. She told a peer that the best part about my class was, “Every student is Mrs. Mizerny’s teacher’s pet.” I am proud of the fact that all of my students feel like my favorite. They give me this feeling in return. And I know all of their names.

Is the Goldilocks English class a fairy tale?

In my never-ending quest to design the “just right” English class experience, I am becoming convinced that no such animal exists. I’ve been trying for several years and have not yet found the magic formula that will allow me to address everything I wish to teach in the way that I wish to teach it in a mere 45 minutes per day. I have tried every new idea that sounds exciting to me, but it is always at the expense of something else I’ve done in the past. Is the “just right” class a reality or a fairy tale?

Here’s my problem. I am addicted to professional literature about teaching. I also attempt to go to at least one literacy conference per year. I consider these endeavors successful if I can gather one new strategy, concept, or resource from each. This doesn’t even include the fantastic ideas I get from Twitter chats. Trouble is that these add up. Every single experience yields at least one great technique I want to implement the very next day. At this point, I have an extensive list of approaches I’ve tried—all of which produced great results.

Among the things I love to do with my students are:
• genius hour
• PBL
• reading workshop
• writing workshop
• book clubs
• Article of the Week
• independent, choice reading
• whole-class novel study
• student blogging
• book talks
• read alouds
• author visits
• iPad apps
• and many more

The problem is that I haven’t found a way to do everything in such a short amount of time, but I don’t know what to eliminate. Everything adds value, but whole-class novels (the foundation for my school’s curriculum), choice reading, and writing workshop are non-negotiable. I know that none of us ever have enough time, but I am hoping someone else has determined a magic way to fit all of the pieces into the puzzle and what you’ve had to let go.

I’ve used two different schedules. One is to alternate a reading-focused unit (3 weeks) with a writing-focused unit (2 weeks). I have also alternated days of the week between reading and writing Monday through Thursday and “something fun Fridays” which involve critical thinking and skill development. Penny Kittle gave me the great advice to spread out the workshops to two days. This would be a great solution for my reading and writing workshop, but I need to figure out how to incorporate some of the other wonderful ideas out there. It’s overwhelming. If anyone has this solved, I am all ears. A great group from my twitter PLN put together a Google doc to share ideas, but would love to hear more.

Thanks. I look forward to learning with you.

You mean we get to read for fun?

Whenever I am in a group of English teachers and we discuss our classroom practices, I share that the best thing I have done for my students over the last six years is to offer them ten minutes of free, choice reading at the beginning of every class. I even offer to share the research demonstrating the validity of this practice because I believe in it so much. They challenge me by saying that they cannot afford to give up the classroom time because they have so much material to cover. I completely understand this as I only have 45 minute class periods myself, but I can’t imagine taking this time away. It is a challenge, but it is non-negotiable. The conversation inevitably turns to how I assess this choice reading. I dread this question because it puts me on the defensive. My answer is that I don’t. I am always met with disbelief, disapproval, or peers that tell me their kids won’t read if it is not for points, a prize, or a grade. This has not been my experience. It works for me and my students and I see the results in their improved reading, writing, and speaking skills. Additionally, they are completely engaged on a daily basis. They enter class and open their books right away. They share their favorite books with me and even show me passages that they particularly enjoy. You can hear a pin drop during those ten minutes and they groan when it’s over. That’s enough assessment for me.

I consider Donalyn Miller, Terry Lesesne, Kelly Gallagher, Penny Kittle, Stephen Krashen, and Kylene Beers (among others) to be experts on this topic and all are a huge influence on the way I run my class. I have drunk their Kool-Aid and it is my favorite flavor–literacy. In his book, Readicide, Kelly Gallagher asks readers to put themselves in their happy reading place at home. He asks, “Do you finish your book quickly so you’ll have more time to write a report, make a poster, or build a diorama?” Of course not. Adults do not do this, and children should not have to either.

My students do a great deal of formal and informal activities with the books that they read. I require them to keep a reading log including the author, title, genre, rating, and rationale for their rating. I want them to look for patterns to learn what they love and where there may be areas for growth. I have them write a literacy letter to me each marking period. They tell me what they are enjoying reading and why, and I respond to their letter. They do book talks, book trailers, and book recommendations one another. We have book swaps and book floods, write reviews for bulletin boards, make graffiti walls of favorite quotes, and use the texts as examples for mentor texts. I just don’t grade their reading in any way. These activities are naturally motivating and they always complete them. The bonus is that the children are always reading. I almost can’t keep up with the requests for book recommendations. They get so excited when I tell them I tweeted the author to tell them how much they loved the book. They take their books to other classes and read when they finish their work. (To the point where a colleague complained that all the kids wanted to do was read, and another colleague replied that there are worse problems we could have.) What more can I say? This system just works for me.

I don’t know whether this will work for you, but you truly have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Signing off for now. I am sure there is a twitter chat I am missing.