Time to Read and Write–and Discuss
My fourth grade literacy group right now contains many kids I have not worked with a lot in the past, because our teachers differentiate well students’ levels in literacy. I work with a core group of kids 4 days a week and others who only come in for the writing extension 2 days. So, Monday and Wednesday we read and on Tuesday and Thursday we write–through blogs and wikis. I am providing them intensive time for reading and discussion of literacy aspects on Mondays and Wednesdays and prolonged time to write on Tuesdays and Thursdays. It is amazing me how intense the writing sessions are–for an hour, these kids type away on their wikis and blogs-thinking, reading, writing, revising and responding to one another.
(background knowledge, getting to know each other)
Their blog entries are really surprising me–I have left the direction they take completely open, with little guidance as to topics. Initially, I really needed to just see what they knew and how they wrote. A couple of fortuitous moves have given the kids great motivation to write. First, we have “blogging buddies” in Colorado and the two classes comment on each other’s writings–and we skyped with them last week , so the kids are feeling like they sort of know each other. (See Jordan’s entry here about the Skype session.) Secondly, @drjohnhadley, a professor at the University of South Alabama, has recommended my blogs to his college students, so my students are getting LOTS of comments! They not only are seeing the benefits of writing and expressing themselves, but they are also getting feedback regularly, and not just from the teacher! I also give them time weekly , during literacy, to work on their blogs in school–so they see their blog work as valued. I have decided, for the time being, to let them keep using their blogs for writing of their own interests and choice. As I said, these are kids I don’t know well, and I need to discover their backgrounds, as Angela Stockman so eloquently describes in her blog, On Background Knowledge.
My fifth graders are getting ready to take the writing test the beginning of March, so Friday I asked them to please help the 4th graders by responding and helping them edit. The 5th graders are having a ball, finding a real-life use for practicing their editing skills, even spending time this weekend sharing ideas and comments! (And, even though Elizabeth says responding is helping with her editing skills, I need to help her edit her own comments! Despite being told not to use texting language, she is doing so as she gives a friend feedback.)
Loving Books–or NOT
So, the 4th graders are writing, pretty prolifically. These are kids who already read–and each of them are reading a self-chosen chapter book (or two or three) at home. It’s what they are doing with me for “reading” that is also surprising me. They came to me complaining about the worksheets they have to do after reading a book. One child even said they loved Owl Moon when they were younger, but having to read it and do a bunch of worksheets on it, “…killed the book for me–I don’t like it anymore.”
That tears at my heart–to have well-meaning teachers “kill” a child’s love for a book inadvertently. I decided right away, as I planned for this group, I would not give them worksheets, but instead find other ways to engage them in deep book discussions.
Thinking and Talking Together
I began with a unit on Tomie de Paola, one of my favorite authors, to discuss characters and the growth or consistency of characterization through a series of books over time. I next pulled out Ezra Jack Keats, (to introduce a city neighborhood setting to my rural kids) and the kids next moved us to Mercer Mayer, catching the similarities in the plots and themes Keats and Mayer used. Centering our discussions on characters initially, students moved the talk to plots and storylines as we followed a Socratic routine of ”asking questions and testing tentative answers against reason and fact in a continual circle of honest debate.” (Schmoker, Focus, p 36) As we discovered common childhood themes and talked about common childhood behaviors in the easy stories written by Mayer and Keats, I pulled out another set of books I loved, Megan McDonald’s The Potato Man and The Great Pumpkin Switch, which are set in the early 1900s, to bring in the timelessness of themes and character traits.
Showing What You Know
In these stories, the grandfather is sharing stories from his childhood–telling his grandkids about “the olden days.” Each book ends with a teaser to introduce the next book–and the third one isn’t published yet (and may not even have been written by the book author.) My kids created a wiki around these books and many of them have written (or are in the process of writing) the “third book” in the series about a lucky penny. They have created, WITHOUT teacher direction, vocabulary pages around words in the books they did not understand, a descriptive character page, an opinion page, and are sharing their versions of the third story. India’s version not only captures the writing style and voice of the tales and Ms. McDonald, but ends her story just as Megan McDonald does, with a lead in to the next, or FOURTH, story!
My 4th grade teachers have these kids doing work in a “Daily 5″ notebook each day–and initially the kids complained about having to do double duty–the worksheets in their Daily 5 notebook and the wiki and blog work. Teachers, however, quickly explained to them that the writing and reading they do with me COUNTS as part of the Daily 5, so they have reduced the expectations for filling in the worksheets as they see their students working on skills in the 4th grade curriculum in the context of real reading and writing.
David Conley, in College Knowledge (2005) describes primary intellectual skills we should ensure all K-12 students have as (according to Mike Schmoker, p. 38 in Focus) being able to:
- Read to infer/interpret/draw conclusions.
- Support arguments with evidence.
- Resolve conflicting views encountered in source documents.
- Solve complex problems with no obvious answer.
My students are clearly doing # 1 through our book studies and the discussions we’re having in class as we study the elements of literature. They clearly need some support to do to # 2 well, as I look at the “opinions” page on their wiki. And, I need next to move to some books that provide conflicting viewpoints on an issue so that they can work with #3 and #4 in as public a way as we have shown their writing skills on their wikis and blogs.
Mike Schmoker also implies, in Focus on page 26, that wikis and blogs are “faddish, time-gobbling activities.” I would argue that the way my kids are using them that they are assuredly NOT faddish, or time-gobbling–that they are instead simply a tool my students use for the intense amount of writing, reading and thinking they are doing daily.
Doug Reeves speaks to three ways we should examine what we are doing with students–does the work provide for
- endurance-are the students using knowledge and skills that will serve them beyond a single test date?
- leverage-are the skills and knowledge of value in multiple disciplines?
- readiness for next grade level? Does the work contain essential knowledge and skills that are necessary for their success in the next grade level?
From my descriptions, what would you say? Does this student work exemplify or provide support for endurance, leverage and readiness for more sophisticated learning? Is it authentic literacy?