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Not One More Worksheet!

Blog post on the ineffectiveness of worksheets, the rationale for avoiding them, examples of alternative approaches.

      I saw this graphic and thought, I have to stop and write about this.  Again.  Yet, I have taxes to do.  I have laundry to wash and supper to heat.  But, this is more important, weighing heavily on my mind at the moment. 
     Worksheets.  Why?  Why are there still so many worksheets in our classrooms?  For more than twenty-four years, I've written about teaching reading and writing through authentic literacy contexts instead of using worksheets.  Why?  Because 'teaching' students to do a worksheet really teaches them nothing.  Never mind the poor design of some worksheet tasks.  Never mind that worksheets, piles and piles of them, numb students' brains and contribute to negative perceptions of school.  Never mind the money wasted on workbooks, ink, toner, paper...  The most important issue here is that teaching via worksheets has very limited effectiveness.  The time students spend filling out worksheets is basically a total waste.  Why?  Because what we 'teach' via a worksheet, if it is actually worthwhile to teach, must transfer to the complex acts of real reading and real writing.  Otherwise, what was the point of the exercise?  This transfer is not easy. 
     Let's take an example.  I'm a second grade student, and I have just completed a worksheet on properly capitalizing sentences and putting in the appropriate end mark punctuation. I score 100%.  All I had to think about while I was doing this task was:  "Remember to put the capital at the beginning.  Read the sentence.  What type of sentence is this?  Is it telling me something, questioning, or exclaiming something?"  Bam, done.  It was pretty simple to concentrate just on those few concepts while filling out this one worksheet.  Now, as that same second grader, when I sit down to write a story, very different processes go on in my mind:  "What am I going to write?  Where will my story happen?  Who will be in my story? What will they do?  How do I say that so others can read it?  How do I spell this word?  Wait, let me reread to see if what I have so far makes sense.  Will my readers like this?  Do I like this?  What word should I use for that?  This doesn't make sense, how can I say it a different way?  I'm stuck.  What should I write next?  What am I going to do with this character now?  How will I solve this problem?"  ETC... One of the last things that enters my mind is, "Where does that capital go?  Do I need a period or question mark?"  Why?  Because the second grader is focused on meaning making.  And, if she hasn't learned how to use capitals and end mark punctuation in her quest to make that meaning, it's likely she'll leave out these conventions entirely.  Writing is a complex mental process with many questions and issues entering a writer's mind simultaneously.  Filling out worksheets is a simple mental process and often can be done without much true engagement at all.
     So, what do we do instead?  We teach our students to read and write through modeled, shared, interactive, guided and independent experiences.  We teach in real contexts so that students understand how the 'part' they are learning fits into the 'whole.'  For example, when working on conventions, write a Morning Message to the class, have them read it, talk about it, then go back through and identify some of the conventions you included as a writer and why you included them.  This not only puts the learning into a context, it helps students understand the purpose of these conventions.  Plus, the context is engaging and the skills are situated within meaning making, not isolated as they are on worksheets.
    Another example comes to mind: the spelling test.  You know the drill: give the list on Monday, practice via skill worksheets or other isolated means through Thursday, test on Friday.  Why do students generally do so well on these tests?  Simple. The only focus when taking the test is spelling one word at a time.  We all know what tends to happen the very next week (or even that same day).  The student is writing along, composing a piece about what he can do to help the earth for Earth Day coming up, and a few of those same spelling words are included.  Unless the student has real automaticity with the spellings, he proceeds to misspell the words.   It's so frustrating!  But, is it a surprise?  Nope. Totally different context--lots going on in the brain.  We have to teach students spelling strategies they can employ and teach them how to use them simultaneously while dealing with other issues as they are writing.  And, yes, we have to work on automaticity, just as we do with other basic, foundational skills.  But, these skills can be worked on in much more interactive ways than on worksheets.  
    So, how much time is spent in your classroom/school on worksheet tasks?  How purposeful are those tasks?  Do the skills/strategies represented on the worksheets transfer to the real acts of reading and writing?  Is there a better approach, one that is more engaging and ultimately more effective? 
    I have to take a moment to plug a new-ish book from Stenhouse, since this post has mentioned conventions so many times.  If you haven't read or heard of the approach advocated by writing expert, Jeff Anderson (author of Patterns of Power, among others), you should check it out.  Through the intentional, purpose-driven use of mentor sentences, Jeff advocates instruction that makes sense and is actually very effective for teaching conventions.  That's right!  You can get your students using conventions in their everyday writing without worksheets!  Thank you, Jeff!
    I'm off to eat dinner.  Please feel free to leave comments or questions.  Keep in mind, the more we teach the skills and strategies of reading and writing through actual reading and writing, the more our readers and writers grow, thrive, and learn. 

Teaching With Student Mentors using the Explain Everything App

Blog post about using the Explain Everything App to Enliven Writing Instruction (with the use of students' writing as mentor texts) Links to demo video

     Hello!  I’m happy to be joining my friends from The Reading Crew for a literacy blog hop (links below).  I thought you might like to hear about something GREAT I’ve been up to lately.  That is, using the Explain Everything Whiteboard app in my writing instruction.  If you know my work, you know I am a fan of using students’ writing as mentor texts for teaching.  Using the EEW app has really streamlined that process and made it even more engaging for students!

     As students produce writing, I circulate the room, noticing and conferring.  I look for writing that can be used as a model to demonstrate a particular skill, strategy, element, or craft move.  I snap photos of the work in progress and plop them into Explain Everything.  The work is then projected via Apple TV.  Students are thrilled to see their writing pop-up on screen.  I use the features and tools in the EEW app to interact with the piece as students watch and comment or question.  I might use the highlighting tool to call attention to something in the piece, the drawing tool to annotate or allow the student to add/change/delete words or phrases, and the text tool to add or notate, for example.  The app is very flexible, allowing the teacher to manipulate the writing in a variety of ways.  Often, I’ll put my iPad down on the writer’s desk and have him explain what he did in his piece and why.  The students love using the tools and, of course, they love being celebrated as authors in this way.  
Blog post about using the Explain Everything App to Enliven Writing Instruction (with the use of students' writing as mentor texts) Links to demo video
A photo of a student's piece that has been marked up using a few of the tools in the Explain Everything Whiteboard App

     See a video demonstration of the use of the app for writing instruction here:   
PART I  (12 minutes)
PART II (1 1/2 minutes)
 (My camera broke the file into two pieces, so you’ll want to watch part I and II.  You’ll see me use many of the tools, but please note, I’m still a beginner AND the app has many features I don’t have time to demo in the video.  However, I plan to make more videos, so stay tuned…I think you’ll be really excited about the possibilities for your literacy instruction!)

     Since organization is not my strong point, I really appreciate how I can save projects directly in the app.  I walk around from classroom to classroom, and all my work, all the projects, are at my fingertips.  This helps me immensely because I can use the student writing mentors from class to class and grade to grade to inspire the writing of other students. 

     Explain Everything Whiteboard is a $10 app.  You can play with the free trial, then decide if you’d like to purchase it.
Blog post about using the Explain Everything App to Enliven Writing Instruction (with the use of students' writing as mentor texts) Links to demo video

     I’ve created a free downloadable resource you can ACCESS  HERE.  It explains in more detail why I swear by using students’ own writing as mentor texts for explicit teaching, and provides the links to the videos along with some further information about the app.  I’ve included a kindergarten, first grade, and second grade writing sample from my Stenhouse book:  We Can Do This! Student Mentor Texts thatTeach and Inspire K-2 to provide you with some texts to jumpstart your use of student mentors.  These samples include standards connections, teaching points, what writers might consider next as they apply what they learn from the mentors, and follow-up teaching ideas.  Even though the samples from the book are from kindergarten, first, and second, I use students' writing as mentor texts along with the app across all grade levels (our math coach uses the app to engage students in the thinking process as they work through math contexts and accompanying problems, as well).

     As always, I welcome your comments and questions.  Please click the links below to read other posts and download other complimentary literacy resources.  You’re welcome to try your luck in the Rafflecopter, too—there are some really great prizes!

Happy reading/writing/thinking!  


a Rafflecopter giveaway

Again, Again, Again, Full-time Mental Health Professionals Belong in our Schools Now!

Blog post arguing for mental health professional in our schools.
     I posted yesterday for the first time in a long while.  I was prompted to write based on one boy's story, but also the nationwide recurring story of mass shootings in our schools.  Yesterday, I argued for full-time mental health professionals in schools.  I remember coming across a post in one of my feeds about how arming teachers would not have prevented the mass shootings in Las Vegas, Aurora, Colorado, or Orlando, among many other places, since they didn't occur in schools.  Again, I don't have answers, but I know what I live every day as a teacher.  Let's just take today.  As I carry out lessons, observations, and conversations with teachers, I am in and out of the office all day long.  This morning, being a Monday morning, our office was flooded with children having problems.  Why are Monday mornings particularly troublesome?  Students are returning to school after a whole weekend at home immersed in their tumultuous lives.  Many of them enter our building, not at all ready to learn, but in need of some support, some talk, some diffusing.  Who do you think did that job this morning?  Our principal.  Our principal spent the first three hours of her day working with children in crisis, providing them with some TLC, coaxing students to settle in, go to class, and do their best.  Our principal is not a trained mental health worker, but over the course of her career, she's picked up on several techniques she uses on a regular basis.  Fortunately, she is able to help students.  Luckily, she can make up the time needed to take care of her other principal responsibilities by staying late after hours since she doesn't have young children at home.  Again, we need full-time mental health professionals.  Again, again, again.  If we have them in our elementary schools, maybe we can service students in need early on and maybe this will make a difference in their lives. That is not to say that mental health workers shouldn't also be in junior highs and high schools.  Of course they should be. 
     There is so much strife everywhere we look.   We need to address this head-on, in proactive ways.  Many of our children are in crisis.  Look at the teen suicide rate.  Again, again, again, full-time mental health professionals.  This would certainly help the ten year old boy I wrote about yesterday.  Doesn't he deserve help?  What will be the cost to our society if he doesn't get that help?  What about the students in our building today?  If the principal hadn't been there, if she was at a training, for example, who would have helped our students this morning?  Having full-time mental health workers is part of a solution that would affect our society as a whole, not just school shootings, but potentially mass shootings, as well.

"Yes, but..." Time to Get This Done!

     A few weeks ago,  I had the unique pleasure of presenting at an elementary school assembly as a visiting author.  It wasn't just any school; this school is my alma mater.  Behind me, you'll notice a picture of the school from 1974. I was in first grade at the time.  Whitesides Elementary has since become a Title I school and speaking to these students as a graduate who has gone on to be a lifelong teacher, write books, and present across the U.S. was particularly relevant.  My theme(s), of course:  "You can do anything!"  "Believe in your dreams!"  "Let nothing stop you!" "You can overcome (and reading and writing are key to getting there)!"  Do I believe everything I said?  Yes, but...
     I also teach in a Title I school.  In fact, I've spent almost half of my career working in these settings.  We can't do enough to encourage these students to love education, overcome adversity, and become people with purpose who contribute to society.  We are their role models and everything we model matters.  
     One of the great moments during the assembly was honoring one student in the crowd.  He lives right next door to my parents as they still reside in my childhood home.  I had him stand up and bow to his fellow students as they cheered and clapped.  This one minute of spotlight, this one minute of being praised and encouraged, is just a drop in the bucket for him.  This boy suffered the sudden death of his mother this year (she was only 40) and lost an older brother a year ago who is in prison for shooting and killing a teenager during a drug deal gone bad.  The shooting occurred right across the street from this student's (and my parents') home.  The struggles this little man has faced in his 10 years and those he will continue to face due to circumstances far beyond his control are immense.  My hope for him, and all his schoolmates, is to overcome.  But...
     Whitesides Elementary, like the school I currently teach in, doesn't have a full-time counselor, a full-time psychologist, or a full-time social worker to help families in crisis.  I don't know what support, if any, this young boy has received.  I know, given the caseload of the part-time professionals I work with in my school, if he's received help, it is not enough.  I wonder what the future holds for him and I pray he doesn't follow in his brother's footsteps.  As teachers, we do our best to support all students, and lend extra support and care to those in need.  But, we are not trained mental health professionals.  Given the current school climate and the talk of arming teachers to defend against mass shootings, I wonder what the future holds for us all.  We need common sense answers.  One thing is certain, we need more support.   I know where we can start.  We NEED full-time counselors.  We NEED full-time psychologists.  We NEED social workers in our schools.  No more, 'Yes, buts...'  Let's just get this done. 

An Approach to Blended Learning That Works! #boldschool

Blog post on blended learning based on the work of Weston Kieschnick's Bold School.

If not, you don't want to miss it!

     Our school has wrestled with the idea of implementing blended learning all year long.  It’s caused a lot of heartburn over the uncertainty of what ‘blended learning’ should look like.  Yes, we’ve been told blended learning can take many forms and, in fact, we have several teachers who already expertly integrate technological tools into their lessons to improve learning outcomes.  Still, there are some who are thinking of leaving education altogether, given their fears of inadequacy and the ‘stories’ they’ve heard of what will be ‘mandated’ in the name of ‘blended learning.’  This past week, a bright gleam of light lit up our district in the form of a former high-school history teacher.  His name is Weston Kieschnick, author of the book Bold School.  Weston brought with him messages that, I believe, will lift the heavy feeling many of our teachers have over the idea of implementing some form of blended learning.

     During his presentation, he highlighted many critical points.  Below are a few.  I am waiting to receive a copy of his book, so I won’t be quoting from that source, however he told us much of what he was sharing is represented there.  (I’m going from memory here, sharing points that stood out to me.)
1. “Technology is awesome; teachers are better.”  Weston emphasized the importance of relationships in classrooms and how we, as teachers, are the one key ingredient research shows makes all the difference for student success.  There is nothing, NOTHING, that can outdo the performance of a knowledgeable, motivated, relationship-minded educator.  Take that technology!
2. Tech tools are “really cool,” but we shouldn’t be distracted by them and they shouldn’t lead our thinking when it comes to planning.  Rather than thinking, “What am I going to do with _______  (insert tech tool here) today?,” we should be designing great instruction the way we have in the past, with outcomes in mind FIRST.  Once we know what outcomes we’re going for, we need to look at what teaching strategies are most effective to achieve these outcomes.  Weston emphasized the use of John Hattie’s research, as many before him have, to lead the way in helping educators decide which strategies are the most effective given their effect size.  (Sounds like Weston’s book will be very helpful in that regard, since he’s paired the most common and most effective teaching strategies with tech tools he thinks will augment their implementation.)  Once the outcomes and the strategies are planned, only then should the educator start to consider which tech tools might be useful.  The tech isn’t leading the way…good instruction is.  I like it.  I like it a lot.  He also reminded us that rigor and relevance should be part of our planning.  Sounds like a well-rounded approach, does it not?  Sounds like something we can handle, yes?
3. He quoted Harry Wong as saying something like, “Teachers should never work harder than their students.”  Agreed.  Using a blended learning approach in a classroom or grade level shouldn’t take a Herculean effort.  This is a VERY welcome idea; one our teachers will receive with great enthusiasm.  He proceeded to model a lesson using Reciprocal Teaching (.74 effect size, if I remember correctly), seamlessly integrating a slew of great engagement strategies as well as tech tools.  He used Poll Everywhere, Google Images, and Todaysmeet (all FREE tools) as we worked to preview, clarify, question and summarize a text.  As learners, we did most of the work, he simply expertly questioned and engaged us throughout and the technology served as a useful tool for us to give him feedback about our learning, thus helping guide the process.  This was the best language arts lesson I’ve seen a secondary teacher EVER model, and Weston isn’t even from an English department (hooray for the message that ALL teachers should be skillful teachers of reading and writing).  What made it so successful?  It didn’t focus on the tech, it focused on great teaching.  Weston emphasized that creating a poll, having US (the learners) search Google Images to clarify vocabulary, and posting a question in Todaysmeet took him minimal time and effort.  Yippee!  This is an approach that fits everything I believe in.  
4. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.  Weston emphasizes that blended learning should not be part of another huge educational pendulum swing.  We are not throwing everything out in favor of technology.  Instead, we need to keep in place proven teaching strategies (many of them ‘old’) and integrate the use of tech tools in places that make sense as we continue to seek optimum learning outcomes for our students.  Indeed, this is just what he modeled.
     I can’t wait to get my hands on his book and, based on what I heard and saw, I highly recommend it.  Additionally, if you ever get a chance to hear Weston Kieschnick speak,* jump on it.  Besides being extremely entertaining and sharing information educators can act on immediately, he is an example of what all master teachers strive to be—real and relevant!
*You can find Weston on Twitter @Wes_Kieschnick  

As always, I welcome your comments.  Best to you on your blended learning journey!

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