Bob Krech: Use Harry Potter to start conversations about numbers

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Inquiring Minds: Harnessing the innate curiosity in our young students

If you teach the primary grades, like I do, then I don’t have to tell you that kids are constantly asking questions. At the beginning of the year, the one I hear most often is, “When is it time for lunch?”

But seriously, children are naturally inquisitive. Without any prompting, they do a lot of wondering. Over the years, I’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking about what we can do in our classrooms to harness this natural curiosity and create a learning environment where inquiry-based reading and writing instruction can occur. Here are a few ideas to consider as you set up your classroom, plan your lessons and select materials.

Create Multi-Use Learning Spaces

I know when I’m working on a project, I like room to spread out and a comfortable place to sit and think. The same holds true for children. When you look around your classroom do you find spaces that invite learners to sit, read, write, think, and talk together? One way to do this is by making little “nooks” where children can work together in pairs or in small groups. I do this in my classroom by arranging my bookshelves in different ways.

As you can see in the picture here this simple design move creates cozy spaces for children to collaborate. If this is not an option in your classroom, you could also consider replacing a few of your students’ desks with tables. Then, you can use tables to meet with small groups or for students to work together on investigations that require more space. Another necessity is an area big enough to sit in a circle as a whole group and have collaborative conversations (even if this means pushing some desks out of the way!) A conversation circle invites students to question and debate each other and with you as an equal participant, rather than leader, in the discussion. Purposeful classroom design plays an important role in making children feel comfortable and in control of their own learning.

As you introduce the different areas in your classroom to your students, it is essential that you collaborate to develop guidelines for accessing and learning together in these spaces. Shared guidelines recorded on anchor charts are helpful and provide students with clear expectations that you can revisit, when needed, throughout the year.

Integrate Learning Experiences

My colleague, Katherine Phillips and I have worked diligently over the years to integrate our literacy instruction so that students can spend more time exploring connected big ideas. We share those ideas in our books Month-by-Month Trait-Based Writing Instruction and Month-by-Month Reading Instruction for the Differentiated Classroom. These resources go hand-in-hand and clearly show the reciprocal relationship between reading and writing. Integrated learning experiences help children understand the connections among foundational skills, language skills, reading, writing, thinking, listening, and speaking.

Let’s say the big idea you want to explore with your students is asking and answering questions. When planning experiences for students to understand how asking and answering questions helps them as learners, you might begin by thinking aloud about your own questions as you read a story or informational text aloud. Then, during writing workshop, provide scaffolding and support as students work with a “revision buddy” to ask clarifying questions as they listen to each other’s pieces. Later, young scientists can pose their own queries about a science-related topic and conduct an investigation to find the answers. Experience after experience, children begin to understand the importance of asking and answering questions and can continue to wonder across subjects and texts.

Reach for a Wordless Book

My collection of wordless books has grown by leaps and bounds over the past few years because I’ve discovered their unlimited teaching potential. At the most basic level, wordless books provide texts for independent reading for students who are still figuring out how to break the code. As “look alouds,” wordless books offer endless opportunities to question, find evidence in illustrations, develop meaning together, and infer. I tell my first graders, “A wordless book is like a puzzle with some pieces missing.” By inferring, or using our schema along with clues from the author/illustrator we can try to put the missing pieces in place together.

If you don’t have access to wordless books, you can do the same thing with old calendar photos, or interesting, detailed art prints. For a wordless book that combines art and story, check out The Hero of Little Street by Gregory Rogers where the main character finds himself in the of paintings by Vermeer and Van Eyck. This book sparked questions and conversation as we compared the book illustrations to the actual paintings!

What do you do in your classroom to invite inquiry? Inquiring minds want to know!

The Power of Three: Prior knowledge, reading purposes, and rereading

It’s no mystery. The more a reader knows about a topic, the better his or her comprehension and recall of a complex text will be.

You can teach your students to build their own prior knowledge of short texts by showing them how to preview. Start by thinking aloud. Read the title and ask: What do I know about this topic? If the answer is little to nothing, slow that reading down. Now read the first and last paragraph of informational text and only the first paragraph of a narrative. Model in a think-aloud how you have an in-the-head conversation about the details you recall. Write these details on the chalkboard and explain that writing is a topnotch way to assess recall and understanding.

Next, show students how to set a purpose before they read. Having a purpose provides students with a strong reason to read deeply and carefully, and a benefit is they’ll remember more details. Model two ways for students to set their own purpose for reading: (1) turn the title of the selection into a query or (2) reread the prior knowledge notes to develop a purpose for reading.

When turning the process over to students, use a gradual release model. Pair-up students and have them preview, discuss the preview, write prior knowledge notes in their notebooks, and set a reading purpose.  Continue partner practice until students can work independently.

Armed with prior knowledge and a reading purpose, have students read for the gist, a main point, keeping their reading purpose in mind. Once groups have discussed the gist and their reading purposes, ask them to reread and move deeper into the content and themes. Here’s where you’re likely to meet resistance. It’s time to launch a discussion on why students watch movies and videos multiple times. “I see more. I hear talk I didn’t get the first time. I remember more.”

“Great reasons,” I tell students, “and all apply to rereading.” I like to have students return to a text several times after the second reading. Do this by offering authentic reasons for skimming and rereading sections such as: discussing text dependent questions; making logical inferences; explaining why a character or person changes; pinpointing the central idea(s); and understanding how text structure improved their comprehension. 

Three is a magic number. These three strategies move beyond magic to research that clearly illustrates the power of prior knowledge, reading purposes, and rereading to improve students’ comprehension of complex texts.

Visualizing the jobs of tomorrow for today's students

We must educate today's students for the jobs of tomorrow - jobs we can't even envision yet.  Teachers, I think you've heard this a time or two, right?  It is a resounding and very real chorus.  If we have learned anything from the past, it is that the world is changing very quickly.

If you look at the industrial period, the precursor to the boom of national pride and the American middle class, manufacturing was king.  Made in the U.S.A. was everywhere.  In today's world, manufacturing is now pictured along side struggling towns and out-of-work factory workers.  But, I just read a fascinating article about how that is changing and for the first time in quite awhile, manufacturing jobs and factories are on the rise-they just don't look the same.

I've had the pleasure of going to the Ford Motor Co. F-150 plant to see the truck assembled and it is so cool.  It is conflicting with the traditional imagery of factories that we grew up with from our history books though - no dust or oil, no scary machines but rather clean, safe and sophisticated. TIME took a look at manufactoring companies in the U.S. and they are thriving in many cases, adding space and jobs. GE's battery business is a prime example of products coming out of NY state and ideal to explain even one step further what is so different in today's manufactoring world. 

While the "factory worker" may still be scarce in comparison to the old days, the exchange is on research and development jobs.  And within the factory, parts are literally speaking to each other and the manager via the Internet and censors.  And the creation of parts companies have formally been forced to go oversees is increasing due to the visionaries behind 3-D printing. 

What I loved about this article - and it is an in-depth article - is you can start seeing the future that today's children will enter.  And it is an educated future!

Try your hand at modern day test questions

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A school designed to make learning game-like

The $4 million teacher

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Will Common Core perpetuate a 'civics gap' in education?

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Rethinking the 'five finger rule'

I bet most of the educators out there have heard this pearl of teaching wisdom before: Don’t smile before Christmas. Yes, we’ve all heard it, and thankfully we mostly reject it.

Here’s another directive you might have heard (one we’re supposed to tell our students) that’s widely accepted even though I believe it, too, can be misguided: “Every time you encounter a word in the text that you don’t know, stick out a finger. If, by the time you reach the end of the page, you’ve popped out all five fingers, close the book. It’s too hard for you to read independently on your own.”

Known as the five-finger rule, this advice doesn’t jibe with what the Common Core Standards now ask of us regarding complex text, nor with what we know about language. Simply put: language is redundant. The information in every sentence is signaled in more ways than one. Indeed, language circles back on itself, creating cohesive chains of meaning that readers can follow across a text, picking up clues, not unlike Hansel and Gretel following breadcrumbs through the dark woods.

When we cut kids off after just five missed words, we short-circuit their search for meaning. We stop them from attempting to make sense of the text before them.

Linguist Steven Pinker makes the point with this exercise:

Thanks to the redundancy of language, yxx cxn xndxrstxnd whxt X xm wrxtxng xvxn xf  X rxplxcx xll thx vxwxls wxth xn x.

Or, consider this sentence: The girls are feeding their chickens. We encounter four cues that signal plurality: the <s> on girls, the are form of be, the plural possessive pronoun their, and the <s> on chickens. As language educator Kenneth Goodman notes, “Redundancy is one way language makes up for ambiguity; it provides extra cues to the same information.”

And this brings us to another nugget of conventional wisdom that’s also all-wrong and deserves to go the way of the grumpy teacher who refuses to smile before Christmas: Reading is getting the words. I disagree. Reading is a process of constructing meaning from the complex, naturally redundant network of syntactic, semantic, and graphophonic information that comprises written language. Hence, in the grand scheme of a whole text, each individual word that makes up the text is relatively unimportant.

Consider this passage from the Armstrong Sperry story, “The Ghost of the Lagoon.”

The island of Bora Bora, where Mako lived, is far away in the South Pacific. It is not a large island—you can paddle around it in a single day—but the main body of it rises straight out of the sea, very high into the air, like a castle. Waterfalls trail down the faces of the cliffs. As you look upward, you see wild goats leaping from crag to crag. Mako had been born on the very edge of the sea, and most of his waking hours were spent in the waters of the lagoon, which was nearly enclosed by the two outstretched arms of the island

If we require our students to follow the five-finger rule, they might not make it past the first two lines. After all, island and castle are relatively low frequency words—and Bora Bora, Mako, and South Pacific are proper nouns, which kids need to learn how to read around (consider how you handle the Russian names in Dostoyevsky!). Each individual word embedded in this particular opening passage, which reflects Sperry’s brilliant efforts to establish the setting of his story, work together to create a highly supportive network of meaning. What a shame to deprive kids of the riveting “Ghost of the Lagoon” just because, in the first two lines, they encounter five words they might not know! If they’re allowed to press on, the additional text provides more support, making it easier—not harder—to construct meaning and yes, eventually crack open even the unknown words.  

As Ken Goodman pointed out years ago, it’s easier to read a whole text than just a paragraph; easier to read a paragraph than just a sentence; and easier to read a sentence than a single word. More text provides more support for the reader.

Take for example twelve-year-old LaTeesha; she didn’t recognize the word coyote the first time she encountered it in the story “Sheep Dog.” But as she read deeper into the story, following cohesive chains of meaning that included predator, hunter, and attack—she suddenly exclaimed, “I know! Coyote!” 

When readers encounter words they don’t know, they should ask themselves, “What would make sense here?” If they don’t know, they can backtrack and see if it helps to review the text they’ve already processed—or, they can forge ahead. All readers have their best shot at comprehension when they’re immersed in whole, cohesive text. Indeed, in this way, even words that stumped them the first time may—just like LaTeesha’s coyote—suddenly make sense.

What do you tell your students if they come to a word they don’t know? What strategies do you suggest they use?

For more about the importance of working with whole text, see Jennifer Serravallo’s Independent Reading Assessment available through Scholastic.

Shakespeare's Othello and racial stereotypes?

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