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Archive for March, 2011

Webcast On Vocab

Three BIG Reasons why everyone needs to play an active role in helping students develop a broad vocabulary:

  • The size of a student’s written vocabulary is a sure-fire indicator of his/her potential academic success
  • Reading comprehension in all content areas is affected by a student’s breadth of vocabulary knowledge
  • People need 25-30 encounters with a new word to truly internalize it.

The questions is how!?!  Here’s what not to do:

  • Assign a list of words for the students to look up in the dictionary.
  • Ask students to use words correctly in a sentence after a brief introduction to the words.

These are two of the least effective ways to help students internalize new words.

If not these traditional practices, then what!?!

Join Barbara Greenstone and Jill Spencer on a MLTI Webinar, Thursday, March 31st at 3:15 (eastern) or 7:15 (eastern) to participate in a conversation about effective vocabulary instruction.

CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 by chrisjohnbeckett @ Maine121.org

March 31 Webinar – Vocabulary: There’s a Word for That!

“Every teacher, at any grade level or in any content area, faces the challenge of teaching vocabulary. The traditional practice of having students look up the word, copy the dictionary definition, use the word in a sentence, and then memorize it for a test has been proven ineffective. How can we help our students truly expand both their receptive and productive vocabularies?

In this webinar we will examine some of the research on best practices for vocabulary instruction as we explore how we can use some applications on the MLTI MacBook as well as some online resources to help our students learn new words, make strong connections, and retain the vocabulary they need for academic success.”

Here are the outcomes for the webinar:

Participants will:
• be aware of what research says about vocabulary instruction;
• know some practical strategies and techniques for vocabulary instruction;
• be aware of MacBook applications as well as online tools and resources that support vocabulary instruction;
• know where to go for more information and help;
• share resources, ideas, and experiences with the group.

If you you have never participated in an MLTI webinar you will find it quite easy.  Everyone is welcome even folks beyond the great State of Maine!

  1. You need both a phone and a computer.  It is best that the phone be on a direct line and not go through an automated voice mail system.
  2. Go to http://maine121.org/webcasts-2/ and scroll down to the calendar to March 31.  Click on the time that you wish to attend: 3:15 (eastern) or 7:15 (eastern).
  3. Follow the directions to join the webinar.
  4. If you cannot attend the live webinar, they are all archived.

See you online!

8 Essential Issues for Teams to Consider

“Getting good players is easy. Getting them to play together—that’s the hard part.”  Casey Stengle

“Teachers responsible for the team must enter their work with clear commitment to a shared vision of what their team can become, and they must contribute their moral support, energy, and ideas for strategies that have promise of helping them move deliberatively toward realization of the vision.”  Chris Stevenson, Teaching Ten to Fourteen Year Olds.

Dr. Stevenson is a retired professor of education from the University of Vermont.  He has been a advocate for young adolescents and exemplary middle level education for many years. Below are some of his thoughts on teaming; they are described in detail in Teaching Ten to Fourteen Year Olds. Perhaps this outline will be helpful as a self-assessment for existing teams and a guide for new ones.

8 Essential Issues For Teams

  • Governance: how the team is organized for decision making
  • Team Identity: what the team stands for
  • Operating Procedures: daily, monthly, or semester calendar
  • Communication: how decisions are shared within and beyond the team
  • Recognition: how accomplishment is recognized
  • Curriculum: what is to be taught and learned
  • Accountability: how evidence about team effectiveness is collected
  • Teacher Efficacy: benefits to the adults involved

Governance: how the team is organized for decision-making

  • How will we decide?
  • What if someone really disagrees?
  • How will we make sure each of our voices is heard?
  • What will our norms be?

Team Identity: what the team stands for

  • Statement of beliefs
  • Team name
  • Team colors
  • Rituals & traditional activities
  • Expectations and standards

Operating Procedures: daily, monthly, or semester calendar

  • How will team meeting be run?
  • How will we make sure we are addressing each student’s needs
  • What about homework? Helping students with organization?
  • How will we begin the year so that each student has a good start?
  • How will we get to know the parents quickly and in a positive fashion?

Communication: how decisions are shared within and beyond the team

  • With each other
  • With other teams
  • With special ed?  Guidance?
  • With allied arts?
  • With administration?
  • With students?
  • With parents
  • With community?

Recognition: how is accomplishment is recognized

  • Academic achievement
  • Outside of school achievements
  • Sports and extra-curricular activities?
  • Traditions we want to start
  • Student voice

Curriculum: what is to be taught and learned

  • Where can we collaborate?
  • How will we make sure we are not assigning big projects & tests all at the same time?
  • Which standards overlap our different disciplines?
  • Student questions—where do they fit in?
  • Should we try an interdisciplinary unit?  What? Why?

Accountability: how evidence about team effectiveness is collected?

  • How will make sure we are looking at each child’s progress?
  • What will we do if a child is not achieving?
  • How will we use test scores to help us meet student needs?
  • How will we be knowledgeable about the team culture—that bullying or harassment is not going on? That students are gaining confidence as well as competence?

Teacher Efficacy: benefits to the adults involved?

  • How will we build trust among us?
  • How will we collaborate?
  • How will communicate with honesty?
  • How will we stay focused?
  • How will we celebrate our triumphs—large and small?

Create Effective Teams with Some TLC!

Effective middle level teams make a difference.  For over 30 years studies have shown that students achieve at higher levels, are more engaged, feel less isolated and depressed, and generally like school better when they are part of a team.  This research also shows that the most effective teams have common planning time at least four times a week and use this time to plan in a collaborative manner.  So…we know that effective teams impact students’ lives in very positive ways. The question then is…how do teams become effective?  Are they born? Is an effective team created when the wise principal magically puts the just the right combination of people together?  Or, do effective teams develop as a result of nurturing?

I vote for nurturing.  A middle grades team is a living organism whose development is affected by its environment and the actions of others around them. When I think about ways to develop high functioning teams I am reminded of Tom Kelley’s book The Ten Faces of Innovation.  He often suggests that clients look beyond their industry to others that share similar tasks.  For example, a hospital emergency room staff looked at the way Indy car pit crews organize and work together to change tires and make repairs in seconds.  The hospital staff observed general procedures in the “pit” that they could apply back in the ER.  Using this strategy I went searching via Google to find out what characteristics professions other than education nurture in their teams.  I located comments from the business world, a religious group, and psychologists on this topic.  Below is a chart which summarizes what I found.  It also has information from an education class at Stanford University.


Advice on nurturing team development.


“Characteristics of Effective Team.”  http://www.stanford.edu/class/e140/e140a/effective.html

Eikenberry, Kevin.  “Nurturing effective teamwork.” The Sideroad: Practical Advice from the Experts. http://www.sideroad.com/Team_Building/effective-teamwork.html.

Foster, Gary. “ Five essentials to nurturing a effective teams. ChurchLeaders.com: Lead better every day. http://www.churchleaders.com/pastors/pastor-articles/140063-five-essentials-to-nurturing-effective-teams.html.

“Positive psychology at work.” Psychology for business. http://www.psychologyforbusiness.com/articles_alternative2.htm

“The 7 Traits of Highly Effective Teams.”World-Wide Success. http://ww-success.com/blog/index.php/2007/01/17/the-seven-traits-of-highly-effective-teams/

There are trends that show up across professions:

  • Shared responsibility
  • Clarity of purpose and roles
  • Positive and nurturing atmosphere
  • Good communication
  • Responsive leadership

These key characteristics exemplify the manner in which effective teams operate.  It needs to be an ongoing school goal to develop the capacity of team teachers and team leaders in these areas. A team that collaborates well is able to develop instruction plans that support students across the curriculum. These plans might include organizational skills or a coordinated approach to literacy or building a supportive community with their students or all of the above.  When there is not an explicit plan to help teams build their capacity for working as a collaborative force, this powerful structure may fall short of its potential for making a huge difference in students’ academic and personal lives. This capacity building does not need to be an expensive proposition. Most schools can plan and implement an ongoing professional development teaming initiative.  Here are a couple of ideas:

Team building activities are transferrable to the classroom and advisory.

1. Include physical team building activities in faculty meetings and spend 5 minutes processing what went on. What did you do to successfully solve this challenge? How might we adapt and apply these lessons to our work in teams? Check out http://www.teachmeteamwork.com/ and http://www.teampedia.net/wiki/index.php?title=Main_Page for ideas.

2. In the fall, each team should meet with the principal to have a conversation about team goals for the year.

3. Have each team share procedures and/activities they are using which they find to be really helpful.  Once a month a different team shares an idea at a meeting.

4. Provide team leaders with specialized training in facilitating meetings and dealing with difficult people. There are many websites that give good suggestions.  Read them together and then do some role playing and processing. Visit:

5.  Make very clear what the expectations are for the teams. 

Model strategies for including everyone in discussions.

Ask them to clearly state why students will be

better off on their team rather than in

several separate classes.

6. Practice together the 7 Norms of Collaboration from Garmston & Wellman. http://csi.boisestate.edu/Improvement/7%20Norms.pdf

7. Model strategies like consensogram, carousel, and think-pair-share that encourage everyone to be part of the discussion.  Be sure to mention that these strategies all transfer to the classroom as well as working well in meetings.

If a school is going to be organized in teams then it just makes sense to help them become collaborative, problem solving entities that are able to nimbly and successfully address students’ needs.

Helping New Teammates With Classroom Management

Classroom management is probably the biggest challenge for a new teacher. When I was co-teaching an undergrad course we used students’ questions to help shape the curriculum.  Their number one question was how do I manage my class? And…who doesn’t remember his/her first day of teaching and the trepidation  felt as one faced a homeroom full of young adolescents? Many of my students hauled lobsters.  They were tall, muscular, and just a little scary.  They also weren’t enthralled with being in school in September when the fishing was still good out on Casco Bay. Turns out they were terrific kids; I just didn’t have a clue what I would do if they refused to work.  Fortunately I was on a supportive team, and they gave me some very good advice.

One in five teachers leaves teaching within the first three years.  A major contributing factor is discipline.  Even former DC Chancellor Michelle Rhee admits to having class management problems as a young teacher.  A cohesive team will coach a beginning teacher as s/he learns the ins and outs of teaching beyond knowing the content.  Brainstorming  ideas for ensuring that lessons go smoothly other than “Don’t smile until Thanksgiving” benefit the experienced team teachers as well as the neophyte.  Someone’s else’s strategy can be morphed to fit another’s particular situation.

I was reminded of the power of shared problem solving and coaching  while reading the March/April edition of  NEA’s  magazine and came across the  feature article “Help“. The question related to working with students who refused to do their work.  One of the contributors (Howard) to the column suggested four words to remember: Proximity, Praise, Prompt, and Leave.  I’m just going to quote Howard because I think his advice is succinct and very useful:

  • Proximity. Move around the room and check work of all students (not just special ed). Notice who is stymied or not attending. Approach quietly. Whisper. Establish eye contact.
  • Praise. Note something the student has done: “Hey, you made it to class today.” “You have the first part of the problem figured out.”
  • Prompt. Briefly tell the student what to do next (less than 20 seconds): “Line up the value places in the problem.” “Six times eight is 48.” Don’t bring attention to what the student hasn’t done or mistakes. Tell them you will be back shortly to check.
  • Leave. Don’t “hover and smother.” Move to another student. Keep your comeback appointment.

Imagine how helpful it would be to a new teacher if a teammate suggested this strategy and then said, “You know I think I want to fine tune my use of this approach.  Why don’t we both work on implementing it and take time to chat about our progress two times a week.  Maybe we could even visit each other’s classes.”

Mentoring a new teammate is an important aspect of teaming and a superb use of common planning time. To paraphrase an old saying, a team is really only as strong as its weakest link.  If things are going badly in one class, everyone else’s will be affected.  Attitudes, problems, histrionics that start in one class often follow the students the rest of their day.  Working together as team to create healthy, supportive climates in each classroom benefits everyone–students and teachers.

Help Your Students Master Proper Language Usage

Being able to communicate well is important.  Fair or not, we all are judged by our command of language whether it be spoken or written — print or digital.  When you read comments on blogs and they are full of spelling and/or grammatical errors, do you take them less seriously?  If you see a glaring error splashed across a ten foot screen in a PowerPoint presentation, do you get a bit judgmental? Someone says, “Him and me brung it the store.”  Do you cringe?

Many of our students do not come to school speaking and writing well.  We must help them develop that internal ear for proper usage.  Teams can work together on this process. “Whoa!” some of you are saying. “I’m a math teacher, not a grammar teacher.”  Fair enough.  However, what if there were a short list of usage errors that really labeled a person as stupid or uneducated or ignorant?  Wouldn’t everyone on the team be willing to look for ways to help their students learn to correct these errors?

There is such a list. Constance Weaver in her book Teaching Grammar in Context sites a study that identified the 30 most grating usage errors. That’s too many for a team to take on, but 4 of them are labeled as “status marking”.  Here they are:

  • Nonstandard verb forms in the past tense or past participle   brung instead of brought or had went instead of had gone
  • Lack of subject-verb agreement:  We was instead of we were or Freddy don’t live there instead of Freddy doesn’t…
  • Double negatives: I don’t have no…   There never has been no reason to…
  • Objective pronoun (me, him, her, them) as the subject of the sentence.  Him and I are going to camp.

Weaver, C. (1996). Teaching grammar in context. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.p. 112.

A team could take on one type of error per month.  The Month of Duplicitous Double Negatives! Make that Subject and Verb Agree! The Case Against Bad Verb Form! Will the Correct Pronoun Please Stand Up! Have some fun with this exercise.  However, it’s very important to be up front with the kids and explain what the purpose of the various activities are and invite them to be active participants. Make it clear that there is a specific goal of stamping out a particular grammatical error over the next month. Things you might do as a  team…

  • Put posters up in every room. Remind students to refer to them when speaking and writing.
  • Have contests:
  1. Catch the teacher in a grammar error! (Teachers purposefully misspeak and students win points for their homeroom when they catch the teacher making a mistake; homerooms receive recognition for having the best grammar detectives.)
  2. Write raps or poems or song lyrics that explain the right and wrong way to say something.  Have a whole team meeting and let the students perform for one another.
  • Have student make podcasts on the proper usage and post to the school webpage. Check out the Princeton Review Vocab Minute for samples of quick podcasts. These are not grammar related, but they are a great model for a very focused podcast.
  • Declare a “No Double Negatives Zone” in the team area.  Have the students create big, bold images to delineate the area.  A strong, visual message will be seen by one and all.
  • Remind students when they are writing journal entries or open-ended responses in every class of the usage rule(s) the team is focused on that month and all previous months.
  • Celebrate growth in proper usage among your students.  Show them you are noticing small improvement.  Today we’re celebrating that I didn’t hear one double negative all week!  High fives everyone!

Make sure that you don’t inadvertently embarrass a child when s/he makes an error, especially if it’s in front of the class.  Find ways to gently correct, perhaps by asking them to restate what they just said as you stand under the poster with the grammar rule on it. Some standard English usage errors are deeply ingrained in communities, and any public correction may cause problems. Knowing your students well will help deflect any possible negative reactions.  These types of situations are good opportunities to talk about the importance of audience and purpose when speaking and writing.

Fair is fair and after the team has taken on grammar usage for a couple of months, take on another skill from another subject area–Algebra is all around us! Applying the scientific method to all of our critical thinking! How are we making history here and now?

Life’s Decisions and the Middle School Student

Making good decisions about attitudes, behavior, relationships, and health starts to become more complex in the middle grades.  Advisory programs were developed, in part, to help students learn strategies to rely on when they are faced with perplexing challenges.  In some schools there is no advisory, but the teams build strong relationships with students and find ways to integrate social-emotional and decision making topics into the curriculum.

Middle schoolers want to see the relevance between what they do in school with what they perceive as the real world outside the school house walls. Sometimes resources designed for advisory programs can seem to be contrived and lack the authenticity students crave. There’s a new web resource that focuses on the stories of  teenagers and young adults who are learning to “navigate” the real world.  The current target audience is high school students, but there are elements of the website and its accompanying mini newspaper that middle school teams might adapt to use with their own students.

The website is http://navigatingtherealworld.org/.  There you will find many video interviews with young adults who discuss challenges they faced and decisions they’ve made. Some of the decisions have not worked out well.  However they demonstrate that more often than not there are alternative opportunities. You need to listen to any you might choose to use to make sure there is a hook that a young adolescent can grab on to.  Many of them will stimulate good conversations in advisory on topics that relate directly to the students’ future success–attitudes about effort in school, the affects of bullying, making the wrong decision, feelings of isolation, etc.

Below is a sample video where Whitney, the interviewee, encourages the viewer to find the one person who wants to see you succeed and will support you.  Very poignantly she points out that the one person may just be yourself.

The newspaper has sections devoted to high school, jobs and careers, college, and the finances associated with college.  The information is delivered with lots of graphics and just enough text to pique students’ interest.  These pieces would be a high-interest supplement for a career exploration unit.  The information on financing college would add authenticity to a unit on economics.  The newspaper might also make an interesting focus for student-parent nights, especially for eighth graders planning their high school program.

Tom Tracy, the Executive Director, reports that the group is exploring the possibility of developing middle school materials.  However, that’s in the future.  In the meanwhile, check out the website with your students and begin the conversations about their futures.


Descriptive Feedback

Giving descriptive feedback to students about their work before the final assessment is a critical component of the instructional process.  Several years ago I was attended a fantastic presentation by Dylan Wiliam on assessment.  He gave the audience three scenarios.  We voted on which one we thought would increase student achievement the most:

  • Giving grades
  • Giving descriptive feedback
  • Giving descriptive feedback plus a grade

The majority of the audience voted for the third option–grades + feedback.  I very smugly voted for option # 2–just feedback.  I was basing that vote on personal experience from high school.  If I received less than a B on an English paper, it immediately went into the trash without a glance at the comments.  My fellow language arts teachers were appalled when I owned up to this behavior–didn’t I want to improve? What trumped possible improvement and a better grade was my interpretation of  grades as a commentary on my worth as a human being.  Perhaps not a mature attitude but it was my motivation.  Well…lo and behold, for once my smugness was well deserved!  Feedback alone had the biggest impact on achievement.

How does this information about feedback relate to teaming? One of the major purposes of a team is to collaborate in order to help each child achieve academic success. Giving effective feedback has to be part of the process.  Two positive actions teams can take are (1) work together to better understand effective feedback and how to give it and (2) approach a type of assignment that cuts across the curriculum by being consistent with the type of feedback given.

I. Work together to better understand effective feedback: a recent article in the Washington Post entitled “Four Leadership Lessons from American Idol” suggests that the judges on American Idol give the type of feedback leaders should give their employees in order to improve performance.  These characteristics of effective feedback can be applied, for the most part, to that given to students also.  Watch this short clip and notice what the judges say:

They are very specific.

  • Good pitch
  • Audience appeal
  • Good transitions with his falsetto

They tell the contestant what is good about his singing so he knows what to transfer to other performances.  Too often we just say Good job! That comment doesn’t let the student know precisely what s/he did well so that s/he can repeat that strategy in another situation.

The article suggests four things to do when giving feedback:

1. Make your motivation clear.  “You have some good ideas here, and I think I can help you make your audience sit up and take notice of your arguments.”

2. Focus on facts, not feelings. The teacher is clear that the comments are about improving the work, not a reflection of the student’s work ethic, intelligence, or personality.

3. Be prepared for an emotional response. Adolescents take things personally.  We’ve all heard, “You just don’t like me”.  Should you be faced with this dilemma, give the student time to pull it back together, whether it’s anger or tears.  Restate your support for the individual and refocus on the work.  Point to the piece so everyone’s eyes are looking at the work (or ears listening to an audio selection) and not at one another.  That strategy helps to take personality out of the feedback conference.  One approach to short circuit an emotional response is to begin by asking what the student sees as the strengths of the piece and its challenges.  The student then feels more in control.

4. Close with clarity: Be very specific about the next steps the student needs to take in order to improve his or her work.  Add details is not specific enough. Add statistics or comparisons or examples of… are much better.

Giving this kind of feedback may require some of the team to change long standing behaviors which is not always easy.  Taking time during common planning to share ideas and review student work with feedback will be helpful to all of the teachers.  More importantly, students will receive the benefits of the concerted effort of their teachers to improve their feedback techniques,

II. Approach a type of assignment that cuts across the curriculum by being consistent with the type of feedback given.

  • Have a conversation as a team and identify some skill or genre of writing or type of response that all of you require of your students.
  • Create a rubric or assessment list that you all agree to use.  Make sure it includes a place for next steps.  See the example below based on the work of Anne Davies. Students will have multiple practices in different contexts.  They also will receive consistent descriptive feedback on how to improve their work.
    Sample Assessment List With “Next Steps” Built In
  • Look at student work across the curriculum in order to identify patterns of improvement and weaknesses.  Use this information to create mini-lessons designed to build student proficiency.

American Idol is extremely popular.  Make it a homework assignment and ask students to  jot down what the judges say to the contestants.  The next day have students get into groups of three or four and share their lists.  Ask them to identify what the comments have in common and then have the groups share.  This process should be a good introduction on feedback and its purpose. When students are peer conferencing, remind them of the what the class learned from American Idol. Also reiterate these lessons anytime you are giving descriptive feedback on student work.  By connecting the opportunity to use feedback to improve one’s performance with an authentic example from popular media, the team will be helping students see a relationship between school and the outside world.

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