Slice of Life: Best Laid Plans

All summer I’ve been reading, thinking, and planning how my next class will read, write, talk, listen, and learn together. I’ve gone to sleep imagining my room design.

Today reality began, and the enormity of it takes my breath away. I start to have that I’m already behind sensation. To reassure myself, I pull out my plans for the year. It looks reasonable all drafted in Google docs.  All I need to do is set up the room.

I arrive early and open the classroom door. Waxed floors gleam. Desks, chairs, boxes, and random pieces of furniture are in places I don’t want them.  The bookshelves are empty, and the cabinets packed.

I move tables, reposition book shelves, stack books,  empty cabinets, break a fingernail, remove a few desks. Baskets form with collections of mystery, adventure, school drama, biography, poetry. After a few hours, my imagined space starts to take shape.

Around 2:30, I call it a day and walk through the office, where two large boxes labeled 5th Grade Running Records, catch my eye. My plans to spend the rest of the day reading dissolve, and the data follows me back to my classroom.

Armed with a civilizing glass of iced tea, I open up T’s folder. I had his sister a few years back. I look through his running records, spelling inventories, writing samples. I go back in time looking for clues. I take notes. Student after student.

A profile of the class emerges. One of levels and scores. A snapshot. A valid and important one. The data provides me with a starting point. Teacher notes and student writing give me hints as to where I might go to meet each child as a learner. But that’s not all I need.

I know T’s level, but I don’t know T. What he likes to do, what he hates, how he spends his time. His attitudes toward reading, his ability to empathize and persist when things get difficult, his dreams, his wonderings.  Knowing T as a reader, a writer, a thinker, and a human is my job. It’s why teaching is ever challenging, ever fascinating.

This summer and every summer, I research, imagine, plan and create units for the upcoming year.  Units to grow readers like T. I’ve got teaching points, mid-workshop interruptions, and anticipated small group conferences, but it’s  just a map with an end of year destination. Once T and his 31 classmates enter room 5, recalculations are made, and we adjust the route. In a few weeks, we’ll hit start, and the journey begins.

Thank you, Two Writing Teachers for Slice of Life Tuesday. Read more slices here.


Slice of Life: The Power of Assessments

Assessments are powerful tools. Consider medical tests. Used appropriately they can be lifesaving. Used inappropriately, they can be misleading and lead to painful misdiagnosis. The same is true for reading assessments.

My students have been been schooled to be careful, questioning readers. Speed has been discouraged. Their reading assessments to date have rewarded thoughtful responses, both spoken and written. They are used to conferring with a teacher to express their thinking. This is what they believe is expected of them as readers. This is what they think reading is.

My district has recently required a new reading assessment. I had never done this type of assessment before and the majority of my students had no recollection of taking this kind of a test.

The assessment measures reading fluency over three passages with a quick retell at the end. The emphasis is on speed: the number of words read and spoken in the retell.

Results aren’t complete, but what I have noticed is how quickly students adjust to expectations. In the first passage they would read at their typical, careful pace. When stopped at the minute mark they were startled and felt they needed to complete the piece to be able to understand it. Retelling the story was difficult and frustrating for them. After all they hadn’t finished the text.

By the third read, students’ speed increased markedly. Their years of learning how readers should read was abandoned for what was expected, speed. With that speed they got further in the text, but their comprehension was at best on the surface. They could recount details, but synthesis of ideas was limited.

In just six minutes (the time allowed to read and retell three passages) their behavior as readers changed. Whoa! Do they learn fast.

As much as I told them not to worry, you could see the concern in their faces. They could see their scores come up on the iPad screen.

“What does green mean? Is that good?”

They probably felt like the patient in the doctor’s office with all the blinking lights and numbers. Thinking, am gonna be ok?

I try to reassure them. I tell them reading is not about speed. Reading is thinking and thinking takes time. Don’t worry about this, I say.  Go back to your book, hoping they forget the entire experience.

When I found out I had to do this assessment I was irritated because of the time taken away from instruction. After testing them, I am more disturbed by their reactions to the assessment.

When we test students we send a message. We are telling them this is what matters. You’d better be good at this.

Fortunately, my students went back to their books, and I will go back to teaching them that reading is thinking and that takes time. I also walk on with the knowledge that the assessments we give students send powerful expectations and should be given with care..

Thank you to Anna, Beth, Betsy, Dana, Stacey and Tara at Two Writing Teachers blog for Tuesday Slice of Life. Share your own and r11454297503_e27946e4ff_head more slices here.

Slice of Reading Life: Did I Pass?

11454297503_e27946e4ff_hEvery Tuesday, Two Writing Teachers blog hosts a place for writers to share a slice of life.  Join in as a contributor or just read slices. You can find more  here. Thank you  TaraAnnaDanaStacey,  Betsy  and Beth for providing this space for our writing.

“Did I pass?” he asks.

Hate this question because that’s not the point..

Then he asks, “What’s my level?”

This question sets my teeth on edge.

I tell him that these assessments don’t really give him an exact  level. And I proceed to “tell” him what they say. And then I stop myself and ask him to tell me what he thought about the assessments.

First I ask about SRI, or Scholastic Reading Inventory that produces a lexile score.

He says, “Well it has short text to read but lots of questions. So I answer more questions wit SRI.”

I ask, “How does that compare to Running Records?”

He says, “Running Records is only one passage and fewer questions.”

“Say more about that.”

He says, “Well SRI has lots of questions, but each question gives you possible answers. So you know one is right. It’s kind of like a hint. Running Records you have to answer fewer questions, but there isn’t any hint.”

“How does Running Records compare to the IRA?” (Independent Reading Assessment from Jennifer Serravallo). “When you read The Great Gilly Hopkins, with the post its in it?”

“In someways that one is easier than Running Records because you have  a whole book to get it. With Running Records you just have a short amount of text so your really have to get everything you can out of it.”

“Umm,” I say. (and I think, very true).  “So why do you suppose the score on your Running Records is higher than the one on the IRA?”

After thinking a bit he says, “Some of the questions in the book I didn’t understand.  So that’s probably why. The Running Record didn’t ask me those kinds of questions. So I guess the type of question matters.”

“What does this tell you about you as a reader?”

He says, “I guess there are some parts of books I don’t get.  I need to work on that.”

We go on to talk about the book he is reading with his group.

He responds, “I don’t really get it.”

He opens to page one and reads the first sentence from Ungifted by Gordon Korman:

I want a refund from

I ask him, “What do you know and what do you wonder about?”  (Thank you to What Readers Really Do)

He says, “I don’t get it.”

This is said in a monotone, why-don’t-YOU-get-what-I-just-said manner. He clearly wants to abandon this book. While I’m fine with abandoning books that don’t fit readers, I wonder if with a little work in the beginning, the door to understanding might be opened up.

I say, “What  parts  of this sentence do you know and what parts do you wonder about?”

He says, “I know refund but I wonder about I don’t get that part, it doesn’t make sense.”

I say, “So what if you read on with that wonder in mind  and look for answers to that.”

With a sigh, he goes on and eventually “got it.”

I ask, “So what did you learn about yourself as a reader?”

He says, “When I don’t get something I have to kind of break it apart, stop and figure out what I don’t get. Then look for the answer.”

Reading is complicated and assessment tells us many things. It points us towards what might be the problem, the weakness, and what might be needed. But every book, every text, every assessment requires something slightly different from the reader. Bottom line readers need to be flexible in their thinking and strategies they use to understand.

This ten minute conference started with did I pass? In the end I don’t think he found out the answer to that question. Hopefully he walked away with more than what he was asking for.

The Dance of Reading Assessment

For the past two weeks I have been consumed by assessment.  For me this means a roller coaster of emotions: overwhelmed at first, elated at some points, hit by an oh no, what do I now feeling at other moments, and then coming to terms with the realities of what my students can do and where we need to work. Assessment is uncomfortable, so is growth. This is good I tell myself.

Assessing readers has been a dance revolving around student work in small group, independent reading, as well as Running Records and SRI assessments. Students’ Fountas & Pinnell and lexile levels gives an indication as to where a student’s “just right” reading exists, but it isn’t perfect. Students will sometimes be able to work well in books above their assessed levels and sometimes won’t be able to understand a book leveled where they were suppose to fit.  Writers’ work is as varied as are students’ abilities. A level on a book or a student doesn’t say it all. Figuring out what the barriers are for a student in a particular text, and how to overcome them, is the daunting task teachers face. A reading level is a starting point.

Two weekends ago, I rediscovered Jennifer Seravallo’s comprehensive book on assessing readers in fiction. The concept of this work is to assess students’ understanding of an entire book across major literature components: Plot/Setting, Character, Language and Theme/Symbolism.  Two texts, per Fountas & Pinnell level are available giving students choice — I need to add the texts are excellent, high quality, engaging reads. The intent is to assess what readers do and think as they read a text unassisted. Approximately 12-15 questions are placed throughout the text. The end result is an assessment of where the student has understanding by component and to what extent: exceptional, proficient, or approaching.

I jumped into this task wanting to know what my students could do. The results were sobering, and they made sense. Most students did well in character analysis. No surprise. Our school has spent an inordinate amount of effort working on understanding character, and the results showed. This is good news. Now the flip side: where we need to work. Across the grade level, regardless of ability, we saw a weakness in understanding the importance of setting and theme, particularly determining symbolic meanings. Here’s me thinking… Come on why don’t they see the deeper meaning here? Then I stop myself, wait they are ten. So for some, understanding themes may be developmental, but setting? I’m betting that if we focus on this aspect we’ll see results. Students have not been paying much attention to the impact of setting on characters and the problems they face largely because teachers weren’t focusing as much on it. This is a huge aha, and it sends not only a message to the 5th grade teachers but all teachers at our school. And maybe, with a better understanding of setting and how it ties to character, the themes/symbols will be more apparent. Hope springs eternal.

When the results of this assessment first started trickling in, I had to do some adjustment in my thinking. Initially, my reaction was oh no what do I do now?! I’ve overestimated their abilities. I had to resist the desire to take the books they were loving, but not really understanding, out of their hands. So, I talked myself off that cliff and realized something big:  I now have a clear direction as to what students need, individually and as a group. While they won’t read everything with complete understanding across every literature component, they will be moving toward it. And honestly, do I always read everything with complete understanding? Absolutely not. Sometimes I pick up a book, and I know I’m not working hard enough. Then I make the choice to either be satisfied with a limited understanding, or I set that book down and pick it back up when I’m ready to do the work. With this in mind, I’m hoping to teach my students not only the skills and strategies they need for understanding text, but also the knowledge of when they are really understanding and when they are not ready to do that work.

I celebrate this tool that moves us closer to understanding our students (what they do and what they don’t  do as readers), and how to move them closer to what they need to do. Thank you Jennifer Serravallo.

As a post script, the Independent Reading Assessment for non fiction is on order. Can’t wait for that ride!