Tuesday, August 16, 2022

Building Community

I hear laughing, giggles, chuckles, even a guffaw. Standing at the glass door of my classroom, I hold it open  watching students look for their classrooms. Eleventh graders wander and choose their seat at one of our color tables.  Pink, red, orange, yellow, green and purple totes filled with markers, dry erase pens, post its, note cards, and a few fidget toys sit on the small groups' tables. Color-coded name tents emblazoned with our eagle mascot wait for folks to fill in their fours corners: movie recommendation, home town, mother tongue and entrance/exit song. 

We'll use these name tents all year: when we have a substitute, when we switch groups, when I video a lesson. I keep them in a drawer/basket and teach students to take them out and set them up as one of our routines.  I use the four corner annotations to get my first glimpse into students' identities. 

This year I modeled our four corner questions after items our leaders asked faculty to note during the faculty's back to school week. In my block 2 class, students speak English, Korean, Hindi, and Mandarin! They come from the United States, Korea, India, Taiwan, China, and Indonesia. So many rich cultures in our room. 

I'm looking forward to getting to know more about each student: what they know, what they can already do and how their culture will influence the work we do together. To that end, during first week of school I build some sort of inclusion activity or initial assessment into each class. 

Today students completed sentences using these stems. I model a variety of sentence moves on the back with my own sentences. This gives them a start and I enjoy seeing what they can do. I learn a lot from students' responses. 

  • Who spontaneously uses end punctuation?
  • Who shows the most flexibility or fluency with sentence structures? 
  • Who writes general examples? 
  • Who can be the most specific? 
  • Whose voice can I already hear? 

These are some of the things I think about as I respond to students sentence completions. 

Today's community moment was to drop photos onto a slide and then use them to tell 1-2 stories in small groups. I started by telling a story about finding photo four my son's first visit to Nasa, and how that connects to an internship he will start at Blue Origin soon.

Here's B's slide. I love seeing the photos students choose and listening to the first stories they tell one another. Many of these students have known each other in years past. Some have even been in school together since they were four. Still, there is always something to discover, to learn about the person sitting next to you. 

We are going to have a great year together! I already know.

Sunday, June 19, 2022

Monitoring Learning

How do you know when learners get it? How do you break learning goals and targets down so that you can see or hear students’ progress? How do make that progress transparent, shareable and part of your instructional routines?

When I am teaching, I think about those questions and more. When students are learning and practicing in small groups or independently, I need to be close to the action to monitor and support them. 

Monitoring versus Circulating

Circulating is movement. Circulating is not gathering evidence of learners’ knowledge and skills. Monitoring means keeping a close watch. Monitoring is strategic. Monitoring keeps notes and confers. Monitoring requires relationship and trust.

I used to think about monitoring learning in more in terms of presence and furniture. “Lift Off from the Teacher Desk” captured that thinking. 

Now, I know that being with the people is the first move. Circulating, walking around the learning space, sitting momentarily with small groups as they work, these are important initial markers of monitoring learning. To monitor though, I had to have strong relationships with students. 

Students needed to see me as a coach who was working to help them win—every learning target became an opportunity to prepare for the big game, the summative assessment. One move beyond circulating, for me as a teacher, is paying attention—because let’s be honest, sometimes we’re in the room, but thinking about something else. Taking notes helps me pay attention to students and their learning. Tracking where students are in relation to our learning targets gives me important information about what students may need next in order to continue to grow and deepen their understandings.

 I cannot hold data about 22 or 25 or 31 students in my head, especially not when I’m teaching back to back classes, so I do what others have called “clipboard cruising.” I used to attach a roster sheet or a grid on paper to a clip board, list students names down the first column and then and as Brenda Power says, I would take note. Notes took a variety of forms then and now.

Now, I use an iPad and  a variety of digital tools to monitor learning: sheets, GoodNotes 5, Equity Maps and Pear Deck. GoodNotes 5 is an app that lets me take picture, record audio, type or draw my own notes and I can share the notes with a co-teacher, so both of us have editing access to real-time data about our learners. Here is a messy page from the start of our year when I was monitoring students’ independent reading. 

Practically, using a sheet and conditional formatting to sort learning data quickly helps me see patterns quickly, form small groups, and  provide targeted practice. Capturing my assessment data in these ways supports learners during conferences when we work together to review learning and to plan or co-plan next steps for learning. 


I use a variety of formats and tools to monitor learning and gather data. I love it when students and I have set goals and planned our check ins. Exciting work that kind of teaching and learning. The best thing is when students see their own success and  trust me to monitor their learning, give them continuous formative feedback and coach them toward the goals we set— sweet indeed. 

Friday, April 29, 2022

Keys to Vocabulary Instruction

I am so lucky to live and work where I do. I am grateful that we have had in person school, masks on, for nearly two full school years. Unlike some schools in Asia and Southeast Asia, we've been lucky to remain open and on campus with learners. Now that we are entering into an endemic stage of the pandemic; we are learning to live with the virus in ways that protect one another. As we emerge from the limits and challenges of the pandemic, like many others, we are rethinking, redesigning  and or relaunching teaching and learning practices.          

During the pandemic, leaders encouraged teachers to take things off of learners plates, to condense content down to core power skills, and to break larger summative assessments down into smaller chunks. Though we returned to school quickly after the lockdown, Circuit Breaker 2020, we are only now beginning to readjust our practices. Like educators everywhere, teachers at my school are thinking: 

            What do we abandon that we did before the pandemic?

            What do we go back to that we did before that we put aside because of the pandemic? 

            What did we learn to do differently that we'll continue to do? 

One thing my PLC wants to bring back is vocabulary instruction. I do too! 

Whenever I listen to talk about vocabulary instruction, Janet Allen's voice comes back to me: integration, repetition, meaningful use. Janet was my graduate advisor and continues to be my mentor and mother teacher. I first heard her cited those keys to vocabulary instruction at a literacy workshop somewhere in Florida or maybe Utah. She was citing Nagy's Teaching Vocabulary to Improve Reading Comprehension, and previewing essentials from her first book on vocabulary instruction, Words, Words, Words (1999).  One of Janet's many talents was moving research from theory into practice and for a time, these three words became our team's vocabulary mantra. 

They continue to resonate, more than twenty years since the publication of Words, Words, Words. Janet and  a host of others saw opportunities to address vocabulary instruction in ways that would be more meaningful than what was most often seen then: assign, memorize, test.

When Janet wrote Words, Words, Words, Florida was three years into the Sunshine State Standards and just beginning to grade schools as part of Jeb Bush's A+ plan to reform them.  The National Board was not a decade old and teaching folks were reflecting on authentic and meaningful ways to integrate the strands of the language arts: reading, writing, speaking, listening and language learning.  Part of that discussion was a response to the automation age and the factory model which in education relied on rote learning and repetitive tasks.

Rote learning certainly has its place. We must master alphabets and sounds and phonemes in order to grow into fluent readers and writers. We must master numbers and multiplication tables. Rote learning, according to some, is required to build a foundation for constructivist (meaningful) or conceptual learning which builds learners' capacities for creative and critical thinking. 

I question my teacher self and her thinking about rote learning. 
Is it required at all levels of learning?  
Is rote learning most powerful for learners when learning new content? 
How do we explicitly teach strategies and build practice into instructional routines? 
How do we integrate, repeat and make content learned by rote, meaningful? 

Ultimately, if we are teaching for understanding and transfer, integration, repetition and meaningful use are key.  In my own practice, beyond explicitly teaching words and concepts, we may use Quizlet Live or GimKit games to rehearse and learn new content collaboratively.  We may practice talking about concepts during think-pair-shares. We also use concept circles, on of my favorites, at the start, middle or end  of a unit (embedded below). I love them because they are flexible and give learners multiple pathways for demonstrating what they know.

Strategic options for integrating and practicing content are infinite. 

What are your go-to favorites?