Definition of a #teacherfangirl: when Teacher A thinks Teacher B is so amazing that they spend time trying to teach more like Teacher A. In this situation, Cris Tovani, a talented, thoughtful English teacher (and book writer) with decades of teaching experience is teacher A and I am teacher B (but you probably figured that out by now).
Cris has been working with my school district over the past two years to improve our literacy programming. Consequently, Gretchen and I have had the chance to delve into her work and to hear her speak on multiple occasions. She's fantastic and has altered my teaching practice in so many positive ways. So for our 100th blog post (yes -- you heard me right -- one hundred!), Gretchen and I thought we would share the love by sharing with our readers some of the truths we've learned from Cris (yes, I can call her Cris because I am her #fangirl). Because as you know, when teachers share great ideas Bubbleup.
Feedback too Late is Useless
Cris has changed how I grade larger projects and essays. I give fewer for starters, understanding that less is more and that a huge part of the process is feedback that I can provide to students as they are working. What good is feedback at the end of a project? In my mind, it's like a soccer coach giving feedback to a player at the end of the game and then saying, please remember what I told you, and then in a few months when you play again use the feedback I've given you. That wouldn't help the player. Instead, what works is giving the player the feedback and then letting them get back to the field as soon as possible. The same is true of students -- all of the comments on essays, the suggestions of papers and projects need to be provided throughout the work phase, not in the grading phase.
Use Think Sheets not Worksheets
Cris encourages teachers to replace worksheets with think sheets. The idea is to have kids share their thinking with you about a topic rather than to spit out the right answer on paper. This could be a quick graphic organizer that you create or modify where students share their ideas about a certain topic, including what they wonder or questions they have. It could also be as simple as collecting a small passage of text that they have annotated. Sure, grading kids' thinking requires kids to provide multiple responses and therefore, will take more time to grade -- but it can really help you see where there are systematic gaps of knowledge among students and also let you identify which students you really need to pull and work with one on one the next day.
A Notebook is a Teacher's Best Friend
At our last gathering, I asked Cris if she actually carries a notebook around her classroom all the time. And she said emphatically that she does. But why? She uses it to jot down student discussion and insights. It allows her to refer back to what kids are doing right -- and also lets her collect empirical data about how her students are doing. It also prevents her from interrupting students. I think all teachers constantly collect info about their students, but I don't refer back to it the following day, or use it to call out students by name and say: "I really like the way so and so did such and such. And here's why...." I know this makes sense in my teaching practice. I know it will make me a better teacher. So now, off to buy a notebook. A tip from Cris -- don't use a small one -- you'll lose it in your classroom (as she apparently does on a regular basis).
Workshop model isn't just for elementary school
This journey into literacy with my school district has changed me in so many ways as a teacher, but by far the best thing I have learned is the workshop model. I think I already did this a bit, but after learning more I have doubled down on it. The idea is to build your class period in such a way that you are providing a mini-lesson to students at some point and that the rest of the time they are working on activities whether in pairs, groups or individually that are tied to the day's learning targets. Middle schools tend to not create small groups for pull out lessons as is done at the elementary level. I now have embraced this practice, doing what I can to build plenty of check in time and small group teaching time into my 45 minute periods. Gretchen and I have talked about this so much . We feel that there is so much that our elementary counterparts are doing that need to be continued at the middle and high school level. We have much to learn from them. Unfortunately, teachers tend to look to levels ahead when preparing our students for the future, rather than looking at what students are capable of doing based on their experiences at the elementary school level.
Think Alouds are Vital
When need to show students how we tackle tasks particularly in reading, writing, and problem solving areas. One effective tool is to use a think aloud. Here's what Tovani means: read something (with a copy shown on the screen) and show kids your thought process as you read it. We all do such different work in our disciplines that it is vitally important for students to hear our inner dialogue in that discipline so that they can learn to emulate it. This is an instructional game changer -- and it doesn't have to be long. Two, three minutes max. How you think through a text shouldn't be a mystery to kids; it shouldn't be something they are left to figure out on their own.
Never break a teacher/student meeting
At one of our meetings, Cris shared a video. It showed her working one on one with a student in her classroom. Together, they were working to unwrap content in a reading assignment. The student was struggling but Cris stayed with him, working until he experienced success. If I am honest, this is where my #fangirlness began. She was just incredible to watch -- like watching a chef make an incredible meal. But the thing that struck me most was that she never broke her focus on the student. When some kids were off task, she didn't leave him to redirect them, she just let it happen, knowing that he needed her help and that she couldn't be all things to all people in the same moment. That video stuck with me. Now when I am helping a student, I do everything in my power to give them my complete focus -- for those few moments -- that child sees that I value his or her learning above all else.
Purpose is at the heart of it all.
If you are going to assign a reading, make sure students know why they are reading. In fact, we now go so far in my classroom to write the purpose on the paper anytime we are reading. It makes sense to make it explicit. As adults, we read differently based on purpose. I might read instructions to put a table together, differently than a fiction book and differently again from a news article that I am scouring for data. Kids need to know their purpose. It shouldn't be a guessing game for them.
Consider a Conversation Calendar
Recently, Cris showed us a conversation calendar. It is a weekly calendar with a space for a student comment and then a teacher reply for each day. Sometimes teachers might have the students answer a specific question about life or about content. This is a way to build relationships between teacher and student especially at the secondary level, where a teacher might be interacting with 140 students a day. I love this idea so much that I am stealing it. That's what #teacherfangirls do.
We are all literacy teachers...(yes, I'm looking at you)
The best thing about delving into Cris' work is that she has taught me what grad school and years of teaching didn't: she taught me to be a reading and writing teacher. Cris opened my eyes to the fact that I am responsible for teaching my students how to read and write in my content area -- and that's something that their other teachers can't do. Moreover, she has provided me with real techniques and activities (that are simple and doable) that allow me to teach literacy. I now feel like students are walking away from my room not only with content knowledge but with very important literacy skills. In short, I now feel like I am a literacy teacher and that my content area is a vehicle for teaching these life-long skills.
And that's why I am a #fangirl
So, now do you get why I am a #fangirl? We are never too experienced or too seasoned to learn something new -- to gain new perspective and to alter our teaching practice all in the name of helping kids to learn and grow. You can check out more of CrisTovani's work here:
Do you have a special teacher that you have learned from? What are his or her teaching methods and philosophies? We'd love to hear from you!
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