Posted in general education, homeschool, literacy, mind, more seeds, social studies, special education

Ancient History Notebooking in the High School Years

What is Notebooking?

Notebooking is more than taking notes in a notebook.

Notebooking is the routine and practice of using a notebook, in an open-ended way, to chronicle a learning journey.

While traditional notebooks are “closed” activities, with a uniform finished product, notebooking allows students to interact with the content they are studying in a customized, individualized way. Because students are free to journal about the things that intrigue them most about a topic, they spend more time on the parts of the topic that matter to them, and less time on material they already know. Thus, there is more learning, and the learning “sticks.”

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notebooking
Keeping a notebook of one’s learning is an excellent way to make new learning stick! {Image Credit: (c) 2017, Kim M. Bennett

Our Notebooking Story

I always used notebooking with my homeschooler when he was younger. The combination of drawing and writing – two of his favorite pasttimes – and the variety of page styles he could choose from made larning fun for him. We studied books, and pirates, and military helicopters, and the Ancient Egyptians, and chemistry – all through notebooking. The work he completed and the knowledge he gained as an elementary and middle school, has stuck with him all these years.

As he grew to be a junior high schooler, I doubted myself, and got trapped in the idea that the “textbook is the thing.” We fell away from notebooking for a couple of years. Maybe not as a result, but certainly at the same time, he became less enamored with his studies.

Halfway through his high school years, our teen has been revisiting his love for writing and drawing. We are going to run with that, and return to notebooking in his high school years!

Free Homeschool Resource Hub

Why Notebooking in High School?

I know that my son enjoys writing and enjoys drawing. He can do just about anything with any electronic device you hand him: make music, create amazing artwork, write a persuasive essay about why he should get his license… I want to combine all of these to allow him to learn his high school subjects in the manner that he learns best.

Debra Reed, of Productive Homeschooling, describes the benefits of notebooking at all ages, in her introductory post.

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notebooking
Notebooks are more than just “flat” pages – you can use them to store vocabulary cards and other activities – here is a middle school example where a student created popsicle stick puppets of Roman gladiators, and used an envelope to hold the pieces. {Image Credit: (c) 2014, Kim M. Bennett}

Notebooking instead of a “Report!” ~ our “Ancients of the Americas” Study

I have used notebooking pages each year as a way to help my students and homeschoolers organize their reports. You can pre-enter headings onto the sheets before copying them, if your kids need help organizing information, or leave them open-ended for students to record the information that is most interesting to them. As part of our World History class this year, my homeschooler and my high school students will choose an independent research project on one of the ancient peoples of the Americas. There are many notebooking page sets available for use for this study – follow the links to download your own.

North America

The Mound People (Mississippians)

Other North American Ancients

Central America

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notebooking
Simple pockets to hold loose items can be created in binder-style notebooks, by folding a piece of construction paper and punching holes in the margin. {Image Credit: (c) 2013, Kim M. Bennett}

The Olmecs

The Aztecs (and pre-Aztec societies)

The Zapotecs

The Mayans

http://allkidscanlearn.school.blog
notebooking
Switching to notebooking doesn’t mean you have to ditch your organizers! They can become pages in the notebook, or can be trimmed and glued onto pages as you wish. {Image Credit: (c) 2011, Kim M. Bennett}

South America

The Moche

Other South American Ancients

For More Notebooking Help…

For more examples of how you can use notebooking with all ages, see these studies at “A Child’s Garden.”



{This blog is featured in Top 100 Special Education Blogs}

Posted in general education, homeschool, literacy, math, mind, more seeds, science, social studies, special education

Tech Tools and Education Apps You Have to Try This Year!

Living in a Technological World

Kids these days are technology natives.

From the time they were born, they’ve held some kind of electronic device in their baby hands: a cell phone, a remote, a game console controller… Their classrooms, likewise, are full of technology that the rest of us never even dreamed of, including interactive white boards, document cameras, digital recorders and web cams, and 1:1 Chrome books and iPads.

Many of us charged with teaching said students with said devices are, unfortunately, technology immigrants. We may have assimilated well (or not) into the world of technology, but it doesn’t come second nature to us. Consequently, there are many of us who use our Promethean board as simply a tool to project videos while the kids eat snack.

And, of course, there is a growing anti-technology movement, based on the very clear evidence of some very real, and detrimental, effects of excessive screen time to the minds, bodies and spirits of kids and adults.

It is safe to say that the digital world is here to stay. There is no doubt that electronics, today, bring many benefits to our lives: the digital mammogram I just had is instantly readable by all of my doctors; my cell phone and a Roku app replace the TV remote that died because it sat in water on the coffee table; the music from my Pandora account streams live to two Onyx speakers in my house, so I can clean and listen to Bonnie Raitt at the same time; I can look on my laptop to see who came to my door at home, while sitting at my desk at work.

In what ways will I use technology to enhance my students’ lives and learning this year, while making sure that they live balanced lives, in the process?

Technology Tools in Today’s Classrooms

There is an amazing graphic that’s been around for a number of years, which shows about a zillion (okay, that’s an exaggeration) apps that correspond to Bloom’s Taxonomy. Perhaps you’ve seen it?

http://allkidscanlearn.school.blog
educational technology
apps for learning
iPad apps can be effective and modern ways to address all of the levels of Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy.

My students prefer to have real textbooks, but they are much more engaged when I incorporate interactive technological tools into my daily lessons. The “menu” above is a good start, but there are now so many more!

What’s on My Technology Menu for 2019-20?

Here are the apps and websites I’m using with my students this year:

Language Arts

Old Standby: ReadWorks: I have used this free website to download leveled articles for all subjects for a number of years. Last year, I began using some of the other features as part of my explicit instruction in language arts.

  • articles have an option be projected onto my Promethean board for whole-group lessons
  • the Article-a-Day feature can be used to build background knowledge on a new topic with my students
  • I can rotate through a number of articles on the same topic, on different Lexile levels, through the course of the week, so students can apply learned skills to increasingly difficult texts
  • the comprehension questions can be sorted by question type, for monitoring IEP goals and objectives
  • there are question sets for specific skill areas (e.g., Author’s Purpose questions, vocabulary questions)

This summer, I used ReadWorks articles to assess Oral Reading Fluency as well as Silent Reading Fluency, once a week for all students on my caseload. One downside to ReadWorks is that there are fewer articles at the higher Lexile levels. Enter my new favorite literacy site…

ReadWorks offers many options for teaching reading instruction to students of all levels. {Image credit (c) 2019, Kim M. Bennett}

My New Favorite: Newsela: Like ReadWorks, Newsela offers leveled passages for students to read, and comprehension questions to answer. This summer, I set up a free version of the account, and invited my summer school students to participate. While we considered and declined to purchase a PRO account (it was pricey), the free version was well-liked by my students, and will become part of our regular instruction this coming year.

  • students can control the readability of the text in real-time, and see the changes when they adjust the Lexile level
  • they can monitor their own progress, and have learned how to choose a “just-right” level, or a challenge level, by viewing their “binder”
  • there are more selections at the higher reading levels than in ReadWorks
  • there are fewer questions at the end than with ReadWorks
  • by logging into the students’ accounts, I can see their overall progress, as well as sort their data by question type (NOTE: with the PRO version, there is a teacher dashboard, but not with the free version – so I make it part of my conference with the student to log into their account with them)
  • Newsela is a useful learning task for independent work during the literacy block
In Newsela, students can monitor their progress in their “binder.” Green dots represent articles read where the students scored at least 75% on the response quiz. {Image credit (c) 2019, Kim M. Bennett}

Have to Try: Last year, I struggled to teach literary themes to my students, until, out of desperation, I began playing popular music for them from YouTube videos. Students were quickly able to identify the theme when it was embedded in music.

A colleague introduced me to Teach Rock, which has over 150 lesson plans and 16 units of study for teaching literary ideas through the study of popular music through the ages. We dabbled with it this summer, and I’m working it into my Language Arts work for the school year. Stay tuned!

Tools to Use: I have a handful of students who struggle with writing, either because they have difficulty spelling the words they want to use, or their physical writing process is slow and laborious. I introduced them to Windows Speech Recognition, which comes free with your Windows OS. You simply go into your settings, under Accessibility features, and activate it, so it runs in the background. With a command, it turns on, enabling students to speak their written responses. Early results show that the students are interested. NOTE: as with the voice commands on your phone, it does take time to learn how to talk so that the computer understands you, and to train the computer to understand your voice. I advise assigning particular computers to particular students, to help with that.

Windows Speech Recognition runs in the background, and can be activated by voice, to enable speech-to-text accommodation for students. {Image credit: (c) 2019, Kim M. Bennett}

Mathematics

Old Standby: I have been using Khan Academy with students (including my own homeschoolers) for years now. Many of you probably have, too. Khan Academy is free, and is especially strong in the area of mathematics, although this summer I started using the computer courses for students who needed a technology class for graduation.

Khan Academy offers high-quality, customized learning paths for students of all grade levels.
  • students can be assigned individualized work to meet IEP goals and objectives
  • students can be assigned re-teaching work, based on their grade-level assignments
  • Khan Academy can be used as an anchor activity, while you work with a small group on other skills
  • I have had students use Khan Academy outside of school, toward credit recovery
  • users can log in anywhere – helpful when kids are homebound, hospitalized or absent for any reason
  • there are initial quizzes that help determine a starting place, then a course is charted for the student
  • I have also used Khan Academy as part of an enrichment group in an elementary setting

Some students find that there is too much reading involved – this can be a barrier for students with reading difficulties.

Tools to Use: One of my teens has difficulty subtracting with regrouping, and I didn’t have base 10 blocks in my summer school tools. I discovered virtual base 10 blocks that I can use on the Promethean board at CoolMath4Kids. The kids love using the virtual manipulatives on the board – check out their site for more manipulatives.

https://www.coolmath4kids.com/manipulatives/base-ten-blocks
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There are a number of places where you can access virtual manipulatives. This is CoolMath4Kids. {Image Credit (c) 2019. Kim M. Bennett}

Science & Social Studies

Old Standby: I have a free account to Kids Discover, which has thousands of online articles, units of study and infographics, on high-interest topics of current interest, with built-in interactive parts. You can use the articles on your interactive white board. Every week, you’ll get access to a selection of free topics – more than enough to use for your entire curriculum, if you’re a homeschooler. My teens in my CDT class like it for a change up. There is a paid version, but I have not used that one.

  • useful for current topics (to supplement your regular curriculum with timely articles)
  • could be used for independent reading assignments
  • texts are high-readability for most high school students
  • colorful, interesting layout
http://allkidscanlearn.school.blog
Kids Discover
Kids Discover is a handy supplement to your science or social studies curriculum, offering high-interest articles on current topics. {Image Credit (c) 2019, Kim M. Bennett}

Have to Try: My assistant shared the website Recyclebank with me. All of the articles are geared toward green living, health, ecology and the environment. The articles include links to high-quality, non-fiction articles from good sources, such as the Department of Environmental Protection or the USDA. There are fun elements, such as the Question of the Day. Reading articles and taking quizzes earns points, which can be redeemed for magazines and other items.

I like to have online current events sites that we can explore without a set assignment. I plan to use this site to teach kids how to efficiently explore and evaluate online sources, and to teach them how to build a reading log using online sources.

Earn points to use for rewards while you read articles on healthy lifestyles, green living and ecology, on Recyclebank. {Image Credit: (c) 2019, Kim M. Bennett}

One “old standby” which I’ve used as a homeschooler, but which I will start using this year, is Journey North, a nature-based, citizen-science website. In a survey of possible topics of study, my students selected “nature walks” and “nature study” as preferred topics. One of my students recalled using a bald eagle “nest cam” in his middle school class. Again, stay tuned!

Tools to Use: Over the summer, I’ve been experimenting with a number of digital tools and looking for ways to incorporate them into my instruction, in an authentic way.

I am fiddling around with creating infographics in Canva, using the free service. It is a powerful app, but with that power comes a lot of information. I created a circle map about the influence of the Norwich Millionaires, and I’m thinking that we might practice this one type of graphic, using Canva in our US History class to continue to emphasize similar relationships in history.

https://allkidscanlearn.school.blog/2019/07/30/using-circle-maps-in-history-class/
Canva
infographics
Canva is a powerful tool for creating infographics and many other graphics, like this one on the influence of the Norwich Millionaires. {Image Credit: (c) 2019, Kim M. Bennett}

One app that I’m planning to use to organize my classroom presentations is Sutori, another powerful digital tool, even when using the free version. I used the free version to create a timeline presentation of the early history of the city of Norwich, Connecticut. I feel it could be a great way to organize lesson materials, and will experiment with this in the coming year (see the linked blog post for a discussion on the use of Sutori to organize unit materials).

Teacher Tools

Old Standby: For the past several years, I have used a paid subscription to PlanBook Plus . It takes a little bit of time to enter plans if you use all the fields (I personally like to include the grade-level standards, and related standards from the students’ IEPs, in the plans), but I don’t mind that. One thing that is handy about this digital planbook is that I can pull it up from any device (including my phone), and that I can move lessons forward if something happens and I don’t get to something on a given day.

In the past, I included the instructional sequence for lessons in PlanBook Plus, but, this year, I think I’ll just put the “big” items (lesson title, textbook reference, standards), and leave the details for my written, daily planbook, since these might change.

Have to Try: As a special ed teacher in a self-contained classroom, in an alternative setting, I collect a lot of data, for a lot of classes, in addition to progress monitoring data. I have asked my principal to purchase a subscription to the Daily Cafe with CC Pensieve, which is a web-based data collection tool that can be used for conference notes, reading assessment data, science quizzes, and just about any information that I might collect. Because all the data is in one place, it is easy to print out a report in real-time for a PPT or a conference. It also helps me plan a workshop, or “cafe,” model for literacy and numeracy instruction, something which I experimented with at the end of last year and which the students liked, as they felt they were busier and got more individualized attention.

https://www.thedailycafe.com/
Daily Cafe
Daily 5
Daily 3
The Daily Cafe (for literacy and numeracy) was originally designed for use with elementary students, but is increasingly adaptable to struggling readers in the middle and secondary grades. {Image Credit: (c) 2019, Kim M. Bennett}

Technology Tools in Your Classroom

What are your go-to tech tools, apps and websites? Share the “best of the best” below, in the comments section!

Posted in general education, homeschool, literacy, mind, more seeds, special education

8 Steps to Better Written Responses

Writing Across the Curriculum

In schools across the country, come September, all students will be sitting down for a 45-minute writing prompt. It will be about something predictable: a fictional narrative for third graders; an informational piece for fifth graders; a persuasive essay for eighth graders..pe. Preparing students for these quarterly or monthly prompts is a major focus for most language arts teachers.

What is often missing in writing instruction is explicit instruction on how to compose high-quality written responses to questions across the curriculum. The work we do to help students write narratives with elaboration, or explanatory texts with excellent use of citations, or a well-developed argument, doesn’t seem to translate into well-written responses to questions in their biology textbooks, or even their responses to literature in English class.

This summer, I spent six weeks teaching my students how to analyze question types (recall, explanation, application, synthesis, analysis, evaluation) based on the book, Because of Winn-Dixie, and how to craft well-structured responses that show their understanding of what they read.

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written response
These 8 steps to better written responses can be used with any age group, in any subject. {Image credit: (c) 2014, Kim M. Bennett}

The State of Written Response Work: Our Baseline

On the first day of school, I assigned an easy reading passage (so the students could focus on their comprehension questions, rather than decoding). Here is a typical response, which earned zero points using my 10-point writing rubric:


Atka and the other socialized wolves at the center are not afraid of people. Why are the other 19 wolves at the center afraid of people?

“So they can go back into the wild.”

{Student J, Grade 8}


I set out to develop an instructional sequence which would help students to analyze the question being asked, determine what was essential information to include in their response so that the reader could understand the answer and to show understanding of what they read, and teach them how to check their response to make sure it had everything it needed to be excellent.

Steps for Writing a Good Response

We used the four areas of the 10-point rubric as a guide for analyzing the question and constructing an answer.

Step 1: Listen to the question.

Students follow along as you read. Most writing prompts allow the teacher to read the prompt aloud, to ensure that students are clear about the task. Remember – you have already read the book. This task is to assess understanding of the text – not the words of the question.

Step 2: Determine how many parts your response should have.

Next, students analyze the task, to determine how many parts there should be to the response. Underline the parts that require a response.

  • Hint #1 for finding “parts:” Look for the question mark – read that sentence. What do you have to do to answer it?
  • Hint #2: Look for other “direction words” in questions without a question mark: describe, explain, list, explain…

Step 3: Identify 3-4 words to include in your response.

Students should then circle 3-4 words in the prompt that they want to use in their response. They might try to circle words like the or because, since they are common words. Ask them what are the MOST important words in the question.

  • Hint #1: Who or what is the question about? Circle those important words or names. Without this, it won’t be clear who you’re writing about. In my example, above, it isn’t clear if “they” refers to “Atka and other socialized wolves” or “the other 19 wolves.” So, students might circle the words “other 19 wolves.”
  • Hint #2: What is this question about? In the case above, the question is about why the non-socialized wolves are afraid. So students might circle the word afraid.

Don’t hurry this step. While we often tell kids, “Circle words you might use in the answer,” we don’t usually spend a lot of time helping students analyze what the prompt is really about, and what the essential words are to a good response.

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written response
Help students analyze the question and plan their responses by selecting critical vocabulary and brainstorming ideas. {Image credit: (c) 2019, Kim M. Bennett}

Step 4: Plan at least 2 ideas to include in your response.

I don’t know about your kids, but mine don’t have the habit of thinking deeply about a question before they answer it. This step helps everyone review (and better understand) the text before writing a response, and helps them orally rehearse the words and phrases they might use.

  • Hint #1: I project or write the question on the board, and show students how to write marginal notes around the question. I draw lines to the parts of the question a word or phrase goes to. I stop when I have a handful of ideas.
  • Hint #2: Before I move on, I ask the kids each time, “Do you have to include ALL of these things in your answer?” And, of course, they say, “no.” Then I ask them, “How many ideas would be in a good response?” And they have learned to say “two,” unless the question states something different.

Some of my kids worry about finding THE correct answer, and struggle when the question just isn’t that kind of question. So this step helps them learn that there are multiple ways to correctly answer the question.

As my kids got better at this step, I added the part where I told them to make sure that their ideas went together well, and modeled that with them.

Step 5: Find at least one detail from the text to support your ideas.

While the ideas are still on the board, I change the color of my pen, and write down specific details from the text to support a few of them, as the kids generate them.

  • Hint: This is a good time to review the proper use of quotation marks for direct quotes from the text.

Step 6: Compose your response.

By this time, some kids will already have an idea how to respond, and will be starting to compose their answer. Give them five minutes or so to put their answer together.

  • Hint: Let kids orally rehearse their answers with you before they write them, if needed. One of my students leaves words out of his responses, so if he rehearses with me first, I can tell him, “I’ll say what you said – check your answer and see if that’s what you wrote.” Then I show him how to use a carat to insert words – don’t worry about re-writing.

Step 7: Review your rubric.

Before we share out, I direct students to review their rubric and check their answer:

  • Did you answer all parts of the question?
  • Is your information correct?
  • Did you include important words from the question in your answer?
  • Did you capitalize the first letter and use an end mark at the end of each sentence?

Usually, they realize they have to edit when they get to the last bullet point.

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writing strategies
written response
Share adult models as well as student models of successful responses and discuss as a group. {Image credit: (c) 2019, Kim M. Bennett}

Step 8: Share your response.

To show students how there are multiple ways to answer the same question, I like to have two students come up and share their responses on the board.

  • Hint #1: Review the rubric quickly, as a group, so students can analyze the response.
  • Hint #2: Identify places where the student added something to their response to take it from “good” to “great.”
  • Hint #3: If the response needs work, invite students to suggest ways to take it from “good” to “great” – talk about sentence combining, word choice, style – whatever comes up.

Written Responses: Our Finished Work

By the end of the six-week period, the students’ response work was much more well-developed. Here is an example at the end of summer school, by the same student as the previous example {underlined words were words the student selected for his response}:



Opal describes her friend Gloria as the best adult she knows. In what ways does Gloria act like the mother that Opal doesn’t have? How do Gloria’s qualities bring Opal closer to her real mother?

“Gloria has mother-like qualities, and she gives them to Opal. Some of them are that she gives Opal hugs, and she gives her good advice. Opal and Gloria cook together, too. She also talks about her mistakes. For example, Gloria showed Opal a tree and that tree had beer bottles and whiskey bottles, and she told Opal she used to drink. Gloria has Opal thinking about her own mom.”


Who Benefits From This Explicit Instruction?

My group, as yours, is a group of students with diverse learning needs. Here are some of the specific learning needs that this step-wise instructional sequence addressed with my kids:

  • students who don’t know how to begin the response process
  • students with slow processing speed
  • students who don’t understand questions above recall and explanation level
  • students who answer questions impulsively and superficially
  • students who need more scaffolding with reading comprehension strategies
  • students who need to orally rehearse their writing ideas
  • students who struggle with questions that aren’t “right there” questions
  • students who are working on increasing their sentence complexity
  • students who are working on increasing their vocabulary

Posted in general education, homeschool, literacy, mind, more seeds, special education

Writing for Life: 10 Things Kids Should Be Able to Write

The State of Writing in School

A few years back, fellow homeschool blogger, Mary Prather, wrote about the benefits of giving (or allowing) our children to have an anchor, an activity that they go to to center themselves, to fill time, to find peace, to find challenge. This is a practice I have tried to continue into my own homeschool, and my special ed classroom, as well.

My youngest child is an avid writer. And when I mean writer, I don’t mean he cranks out stories (although he does write stories). I mean, he writes everything: steps to designing a chicken coop in Minecraft; graphic novels about Batman and Star Wars characters; “chapter books” about famous battles; bios of superheroes he invents. In recent years, he has taken on computer coding as a more symbolic way of making meaning. Unlike what happens in most public school classrooms, where kids only write fictional narratives until grade 3 (because it’s on the state test), then they switch to biography (because that’s on the grade 4 test), then on to persuasive essays (you get the picture), my son learned, from an early age, that writing was putting pen (or crayon, or marker, or paintbrush, or keystroke, or all of the above) to paper or screen to communicate. And he simply loves to write in every way that you can.

I don’t have any trouble getting him to write. In fact, early on in our homeschooling of him, we learned to just leave him alone, and be resource providers. We got more mileage out of introducing him to a new genre of writing, and analyzing its features, than by forced writing lessons. But I know that many homeschoolers (and public school teachers!) struggle to get kids to write, and I really believe it’s because we 1) limit what “writing” is… 2) don’t give kids interesting things to write about (or read about, or talk about, for that matter) in most schools… and 3) don’t have a clear purpose for communicating beyond, “It’s our quarterly prompt.”

Real-World Writing Tasks

Here is my list of ten things that I believe all kids (from preschool to high school) should know how to write, in order to be complete writers, and my rationale for each:

  • An organized list
  • An email
  • A business letter
  • A hand-written thank you note
  • A poem or lyrics to a song
  • A personal or fictional narrative
  • A written argument
  • An informational article
  • A photo caption
  • The directions for a task or activity
10 Different Writing Ideas
Incorporating a variety of writing pieces into your writing curriculum engages young writers and teaches them important skills for their adult lives. (c) Kim M. Bennett, 2012.

1. An Organized List…

A list is probably the last thing people think of when they think of writing, and it’s the kind of writing I do most, and do absolutely every day. Creating and using lists teaches kids so many things:

  • Goal-setting & progress monitoring
  • Accountability
  • Prioritization
  • Time allocation

From an early age, my son learned to use a checklist to keep track of his homeschool work and chores. He feels accomplished crossing things off, tends to get less sidetracked by less important distractions, and gets more done, as a result.

In my classroom, I use “100 Lists” as a regular writing task (“List 100 things you love” ~ “List 100 things to do when you’re feeling blue”). This very accessible writing can be used in any subject area, with any student, even ones who have a hard time starting.

2. An Email…

Nowadays, most companies prefer that you contact them by email, and even public school teachers use email to communicate with their students. Judging from the amount of time companies spend on teaching their employees email “etiquette,” it seems that, as a writing form, it deserves its own instruction:

  • Knowing your audience
  • Writing subject lines that enable you to search your mail better
  • Keeping things focused on one topic
  • Responsible use of copy, blind copy, reply all, forward, recall and other functions
  • Attaching or embedding additional information

3. A Business Letter…

Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1839) wrote that “the pen is mightier than the sword.” In these days of email, cell phones and Twitter, customers often neglect the most powerful tool they have to communicate with businesses: the letter.

When kids learn how to write a business letter, they learn some important nuances of language:

  • How to use a formal tone in writing
  • Putting the most important points first (in case the whole letter isn’t read)
  • How to use the “compliment sandwich:” open nicely, get to your issue, then wrap up warmly

Look for opportunities for your kids to practice writing to a company or organization, in homeschool or classroom.

4A Thank You Note…

When I was little, of course we didn’t have computers or cell phones. My mom made us write thank you notes when we received gifts. They didn’t have to be works of art, but they WERE written. The end. Here were her reasons (and they are mine, too!):

  • Manners, manners, manners!
  • Everyone loves to get real mail (don’t you?), written by someone, and addressed to someone by hand. On paper. With a stamp.
  • Gratitude is something we all need to practice.

In short, thank you notes are mostly about the feelings of the other person, and have very little to do with us.

In my third grade classroom, I had a letter writing center, where students practiced letter format and wrote letters to students and staff in the building. Once a day, the “mail carrier” (one of the class jobs for the students) would deliver the mail, putting letters into classroom “mailboxes” (folders tacked to the bulletin board), and hand delivering mail that went outside the classroom. We were the talk of the building!

5. Poetry or Song Lyrics

One of my favorite writing pieces from my youngest son’s preschool days was a “song” he wrote. It had preschool words, and music notes, and was written on yellow construction paper, and, when asked to sing it, he sang it the same way each time. He still likes to write songs and raps, and perform them.

Music as a writing form
Writing music, poetry and song lyrics provides a different way for students to practice powerful word choice. (c) Kim M. Bennett, 2012.

Writing forms like poetry and songs, teach important writing ideas:

  • Powerful word choice: since the author can only use a few words to convey a big idea;
  • Visualization and elaborative detail;
  • How to create a mood using the words or formation of the text;
  • The connection between art, music and words when conveying a message.

For many kids, analyzing song lyrics works when poetry study does not, because the text is relevant and familiar to them. In my high school behavioral health class, we regularly have “music group” for our life skills part of the day. Students choose a song based on an assignment (“a song that makes you think of happy times” ~ “a song for sad days”), and then explain why they chose it to the rest of the class.

6. A Narrative…

I will be the first to admit to any child, that writing fictional stories is NOT my strong suit. I am great at personal narratives, and love to spin a yarn (usually at the expense of my family), however.

Whether fictional or based on real-life events, it is important for kids to learn how to tell a story. Story-telling is an ancient art form, and serves many social and literary needs, and teaches many things:

  • How to build a plot where the action rises and falls;
  • The importance of setting, character development and elaborative detail (even in true accounts);
  • How to set a tone (humor, drama, reflection)
Fictional narratives
Whether fictional or personal, narratives teach students how to weave a good story. (c) Kim M. Bennett, 2012.

When my eldest son moved into a new apartment a couple of years ago, he found a box with things from his little boy days, including a family favorite, My Vacation Journal, written when he was five. It had “chapters” such as “Uncle Andy with Vacation Hair,” “The Vicious Frog Day,” and “One Day When I Was Fly-Fishing.” It was written in all caps, and had more exclamation points than anyone needs in one writing piece. We sat in my backyard, and loved it all over again.

7. An Argument…

So here’s a type of writing that has important life implications, whether you’re trying to convince your dad to buy you a new bike, applying for a summer job, asking a date to the prom, or completing a college application.

Here are things this type of writing teaches:

  • How to clearly state your position
  • How to back up your position with real evidence (not your opinions)
  • How to evaluate and then choose the best evidence to support your position
  • How to anticipate alternative views and prepare for them in your argument

Not that we wish to abdicate all parental decision-making, but it’s really hard to resist a well-crafted argument when your kids and students bring it to you!

8. An Informational Article…

I mean, more than that old chestnut, the animal report. If you look over your mail table or coffee table, you probably see more informational text than fictional pieces. A lot of the “heavy lifting” of the informational text genre comes before the actual writing:

  • Engaging Topic – What would I like to write about? What would people like to read about? What are people already writing about?
  • Inquiry – What would I like to/need to know about this topic? What is already written?
  • Research – What is good source material? How do I evaluate sources?
  • Format and Structure – How does the format of my piece also teach?
Writing about our African-American heritage
Writing informational pieces teaches students important research skills. (c) Kim M. Bennett, 2012.

My first full year of homeschooling my youngest son, he wanted to learn about military helicopters. We spent countless hours on You Tube, watching videos of different classes of helicopters, reading about the history of the helicopter industry right here at Sikorsky, in our home state of Connecticut, and learning about the different branches of the US military. He learned things through his research that he still treasures, today.

Recently, when we were packing for a move, he found prints of Navy helicopters that were given to him by a colleague of mine whose family is full of Navy flyers. His helicopter research sticks with him, even almost 10 years later.

9. A Photo Caption…

Last night, my youngest and I were working on a blog article I was writing on interactive bulletin boards as a center (he was providing over-the-shoulder commentary and feedback on my work), and we began talking about what to put in a caption of a photograph. A writer needs to cover a lot of territory in two sentences and an image:

  • Summarization
  • Creating “stand-alone” visuals
  • Proper use of the “snipping tool” and other photo-capture tools
  • Proper citation for images and photos
  • Non-fiction text features
  • Choice and placement of graphics, including their captions
  • Attributions and copyright laws

My son uses screen captures and the “snipping tool” all the time, but never realized that you can’t simply place someone else’s photo in your PowerPoint without properly acknowledging its creator.

Apple Experiments
Young children often like to add signs to their work — another form of caption. (c) Kim M. Bennett, 2012.

10. The Directions for Doing Something

My middle son is a lifelong LEGO-Maniac. Even as an adult, he used the excuse of having a little brother who is 14 years his junior as an opportunity to drag out his collection of LEGOs and build. All those years of following directions had a direct effect on his comprehension of procedures, however, and he has the ability to carefully explain directions to his crew at work, as a result.

Last year, one of the teens in my class was struggling to care for his hair. After a couple of the other boys razzed him for a particularly tousled day, I suggested to one of them that, instead of teasing him, why don’t they TEACH him? This teen, who, himself, has great difficulty spelling, spent time at the end of the day writing up detailed hair-care directions for the first boy. I was proud of him.

Steps to a building a lego creation
Following and writing written procedures can be practiced using construction materials, such as Legos. (c) Kim M. Bennett, 2011.

Writing step-by-step directions is a text form not seen much in most social studies and English courses, but an integral part of mathematics and the scientific method. Writing a procedure helps students:

  • Break a complex task down into important sub-tasks;
  • Think logically and hierarchically;
  • Anticipate reader confusion and address it ahead of time;
  • Learn how to efficiently incorporate diagrams or illustrations to clarify

Unlike the narrative, which tickles the right side of the brain, lists and procedures are a natural for left-brained thinkers.

Conclusion

Whether journalers, notebookers, traditional note-takers or “each class in its own pocket” teachers, the 10 Writing Pieces outlined above can be incorporated into any writing curriculum. Looking over my list of 10, I’m wondering what would happen to our writers if we focused on each one of these for an entire month. By the end of the 10 month school year, what kind of writers would we have?

I think we’d have good ones.

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A Simple Scoring Rubric for Writing

Teaching and Assessing Writing

In my teaching career, I’ve taught preschool through adult education. Writing, of course, happens in every age group.

I also have certifications, and have taken educational coursework, that taught me how to “teach” writing at all those ages. And what I’ve learned contradicts itself!

When kids are in preschool, we work on letter formation and sounds, drawing colorful pictures to tell a story, and getting kids to use symbols to represent ideas and sounds. We are excited when they “write” stories, and encourage them to use symbols of any type to communicate.

When kids enter the elementary grades, we give them writing prompts. We teach them how to elaborate, how to develop a narrative, how to provide important details. We tell them that “spelling, punctuation and capitalization don’t count.” We continue focusing on the content of the writing and the development of “story” through the middle grades.

Then kids hit high school. And we ding kids for not spelling correctly, using punctuation appropriately, and capitalizing proper nouns.

And think about the last time you received something written by an adult, and you discovered a “there/their/they’re” error. Just one. What did you think of that adult? I recall receiving an invoice for having my pipes thawed from a big name plumbing company, and the plumber had written the service as “thrall pipes.” His plumbing work might have been excellent, but what impression do you think I got about that plumber, and the company?

Writing is a complex process for students… and challenging for teachers to score. {Image Credit (c) 2013 Kim M. Bennett}

We’ve Been Scoring Writing All Wrong…

Too often, while kids are younger, we tell them that the mechanics of writing don’t count. We do this from a well-meaning place, for we don’t want them to interrupt the flow of ideas because they are worried about spelling. Their short response work, if it is graded at all, is based on a 0-1-2 score (not answered / partially answered / fully answered). And writing prompts are usually a 12-point assessment of the development of the essay or narrative. Yet, we give the kids spelling tests where the kids must spell the words correctly in isolation, then tell them, where it REALLY counts  – in their writing – that, well… it doesn’t.

We continue to ask teens and young adults to respond in writing, and focus on the development of the answer. But, by the time they are grown, and they continue to show errors in spelling, grammar or other conventions, we look at them and say, “She’s a terrible speller,” and then don’t teach spelling any more.

Think about the student you have who struggles with any of these conventions of writing. We tell him spelling doesn’t count, but he doesn’t know how to get past that. Let me tell you, by the time that this student is in 10th grade, he will be paralyzed by not being able to spell, and will refuse to write a word without a teacher telling him how to spell everything. And, at this point, when the student is filling out job applications and writing letters to universities, these things, sadly, DO count.

Additionally, telling students not to worry about writing conventions also assumes that a student’s main obstacle to successful writing is developing the actual “guts” of the writing piece – not simply starting the writing process. The students in that “zero” pile (ones who have little or no written response on their papers) are left at the starting line when we ignore the above causes for poor writing performance. And most writing lessons focus on the development of writing, not the actual event of putting your pen to paper and beginning it.

The development of the written piece, writing mechanics, question analysis and writing strategies are often taught, and evaluated, separately. {Image credit (c) 2011 Kim M. Bennett}

The Four C’s: Creating a Balanced Scoring Rubric for Writing

A colleague of mine once let me borrow a stamp that she had used to grade summaries. It used a simple 10-pt scored that broke the written summary into four discrete areas that covered all the bases in writing. I liked it so much, that I developed a simple, balanced scoring rubric for teaching students what well-written response work was. It also allowed me to identify a specific writing focus so that we could take baby steps toward becoming confident writers.

ComponentMax PointsDescription What it Assesses
Complete3All parts of the question or prompt are addressedAbility to analyze a question or prompt and comprehend it, in order to form a response
Correct3The question or prompt is answered correctlyMastery of curricular content
Content2The focus skill or strategy is demonstratedMastery of the taught learning strategy or skill
Conventions2The response demonstrates the targeted writing mechanics focusMastery of the taught writing mechanics skill

I have found this scoring system so helpful with writers of all ages and abilities, because it takes the very complex writing process and helps the students (and me!) focus on the specific set of skills and strategies that I have been teaching them for that instructional segment. It also keeps me focused when I’m grading (grading writing can be hard!).

This rubric is also helpful when I’m monitoring IEP goals and objectives, too, as I can customize a student’s rubric to his or her writing goals.

The proper writing rubric can quickly score any type of written response work, in any content area. {Image Credit (c) 2013, Kim M. Bennett}

The Four Cs Rubric in Action: Earth Science

Let’s demonstrate the use of this rubric to evaluate student response work in a high school Earth Science class. Examples are given based on the question type.

Text-Dependent Question, Type I: “Right There” Questions

“Which ancient civilization’s calendar gave rise to our modern calendar?”

  • Is the response complete? This question has only one part to it. The answer should be the right TYPE.
    • 0 pts: no answer
    • 3 pts: answer given that is on-topic (NOTE: the answer might be incorrect – the answer is the Ancient Romans; students would get credit for misidentifying the culture [Ancient Greeks] but not for “IDK” or “yes”)
  • Is the response correct? This question is fact-based.
    • 0 pts: correct answer not given
    • 1 pt: student says “Gregorians” or “Julians” – not ancient cultures
    • 2 : student says “Pope Gregory” or “Julius Caesar” – individuals but not their cultures
    • 3 pts: correct answer (“Ancient Romans”) given
  • Is the skill or strategy content (let’s say, “Turn the Question Around”) demonstrated adequately?
    • 0 pts: Not attempted.
    • 1 pts: Attempted, not fully demonstrated.
    • 2 pts. Fully demonstrated.
  • Is mastery of writing conventions (e.g., spelling words correctly that are in the question) demonstrated?
    • 0 pts: 5 or more errors
    • 1 pt: 2-4 errors
    • 2 pts: 0-1 error

This is just an example. You will adjust the rubric to reflect your own students and teaching. Below are examples with questions of other question types (NOTE: the scoring for Content and Conventions will remain the same as the above example).

Text-Dependent Question, Type II: “Read and Find Out” Questions

“What advantage did Galileo have over the astronomers that went before him, and how did it help him?”

  • Is the response complete? This question has two parts to it: mentioning use of telescopes, and what it showed Galileo about celestial objects
    • 0 pts: no parts answered
    • 1.5 pts: one part answered
    • 3 pts: both parts answered
  • Is the response correct? This question is fact-based, but requires more extended reading, and a comparison.
    • 0 pts: no part answered correctly
    • 1 pt: one part answered correctly
    • 2 pts: both parts answered correctly
    • 3 pts: both parts answered correctly, with explicit comparison made

Text-Dependent Question, Type III: “Author and Me” Questions

“ANALYZING RELATIONSHIPS. Is Copernicus’s theory completely correct? Why or why not? How does his theory relate to what we know today about the sun’s position in our Solar System and in the Universe?”

  • Is the response complete? This question has four parts to it.
    • 0 pts: no parts answered
    • 1 pts: one part answered
    • 2 pts: two parts answered
    • 3 pts: 3-4 parts answered
  • Is the response correct? This question, as stated in the text, is an analysis of the overall ideas presented in the section. It requires the student to pull in his or her background knowledge about the Solar System and the Universe. It is easier to score the parts then total the points.
    • Part 1: “Is Copernicus’s theory completely correct?”  – The answer is no. (1 pt)
    • Part 2: “Why or why not?” – Although a helocentrist, Copernicus thought the Sun was the center of the whole Universe, not the Solar System (1 pt)
    • Part3 & 4: “How does his theory relate to what we know today about the Sun’s position in our Solar System and in the Universe?” – 1) Modern telescopes, computer modeling, and photography have confirmed the Sun’s position at the center of the Solar System ~ 2) We also know that each star represents another Solar System, with movements that confirm Copernicus’s theory ~ 3) The same technology also has shown that there are many solar systems in many galaxies, and that our Sun is near the edge of an expanding Universe. (0.5 pts each for reference to technology, the position of the Sun in the center of the Solar System, and the size and nature of the Universe – potential for 0.5 bonus points).
The same rubric can be used to score writing across all content areas. {Image Credit (c) 2012, Kim M. Bennett}

Hints for Scoring Written Responses

As a teacher, I found it helpful to take the assessment along with my students – I recommend you do this, as well. It will allow you to catch mistakes or typos (it always happens), and you can write out the answer YOU expected to see, making it easier to score when you correct your students’ work.

Don’t use this rubric to score everything the students write. Choose one assignment a week as a writing assessment. Use the results to guide your writing instruction, but not necessarily as a grade.

Download a Free Copy of the Scoring Rubric

Try this rubric out with your students. Download the directions for the rubric, and a blank copy of the rubric. You can write in your own focus areas in the proper columns, and change them as you need to.

Please feel free to comment, below, if you’d like tips on identifying a focus for your writing, or on how to score a written response. I’d love to help!

The 4 C’s Scoring Rubric for Writing – Directions

The 4 C’s Scoring Rubric for Writing – Template (pdf)

Posted in literacy, mind, science

Summer e-Book Sale!

Sale on Summer-Themed Products

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Independence Day Sale on all summer-themed e-Books,
7/2/2019 – 7/5/2019.

Hi, there! Happy summer to you!

I wanted to let you know about a sale starting today! I’m taking 5% off my summer-themed e-books and notebooking pages in celebration of the 4th of July. See below for a sneak peak at some popular products.

Stay cool…

Nests, Nests, Nests! ~ 25 pages… only $1.85!

Looking for summer nature study resources?

Nests, Nests, Nests! includes primary and regular ruled science journaling pages focusing on animal nests. Includes organizers for studying and comparing nests of different animal orders, coloring and copywork pages, and game cards for sorting and classification tasks. Suitable for classroom or homeschool, direct instruction or learning centers work. A variety of framed pages included for thematic writing assignments. This zoology item also includes suggested lesson uses, linked resources and much more. 25 pages. On sale for $1.85! 

Other Summer-Themed Products:

https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/Ten-Days-of-Wildflowers-901568
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Other Summer Products:

What about Ten Days of Wildflowers?This 24-page journaling e-Book focuses on making and recording observations of wildflowers seen on summer and autumn nature walks.  On sale now, $1.85!

View similar products »

Looking Ahead to Fall…

Study the anatomy of an apple with An Apple a Day… The first in a series of botanical pages, includes blackline drawings for botanical studies or autumn color studies. 23 pages. On sale – $1.95!

Shop the sale »

Posted in general education, homeschool, literacy, mind, more seeds, special education, Uncategorized

Ten Writing Strategies to Jump-Start the Reluctant Writer

The Problem of the Blank Page

I remember my first public school teaching position. We were required to administer writing prompts to our students on a quarterly basis (for the district), but were encouraged to repeat the process in between for evaluating student progress.

Every quarter, my colleagues and I would sit and collaboratively score our prompts. Every quarter, we had a pile of prompts that were scored as zeroes or ones out of 12, simply because the pages were blank, or nearly so.

Fast forward to my time as a consultant, where, once again, I was meeting with teachers (kindergarten, third grade, tenth grade – it didn’t matter) who were faced with the dilemma of what to do with a stack of writing papers that were blank. Sometimes the students were students with disabilities. Usually they were not. The teachers had lessons for teaching elaboration, or paragraph structure, or citing sources correctly. But what to do about the student who sat in front of a blank page for 45 minutes?

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blank page
For many students, the writing process gets stalled from the start when they face an empty page. {Image credit (c) Kim M. Bennett, 2016}

Common Causes for the “Empty Page Syndrome”

During data team meetings, we would look at that pile of low-scored prompts, and ask ourselves questions about why each student failed to gain more than two points on the prompt. {I will refer to this as the “Empty Page Syndrome,” because, like any other syndrome, it is a cluster of symptoms that has a singular, often difficult to see, reason behind it.} In order to do this, we had to think about each individual student, and look at the story behind the numbers. Assuming the prompt was read to all students (something teachers are allowed to do), the student is physically able to write, and critical vocabulary was explained (again, something that is allowed by the assessment), what are the common reasons for not scoring on a writing prompt?

  • No ideas on how to respond to the prompt;
  • Had ideas, but took to long thinking and/or planning and didn’t start on time;
  • Lacked stamina to write enough for a well-developed response;
  • Wrote sufficiently, but response was off-topic;
  • Refused to write because writing tasks are historically too complex for the student.

Almost all cases of writing “refusal” and empty responses can be attributed to one of these causes. By breaking down and addressing one of these specific obstacles, we can get students to begin the writing process and get out of the starting gate.

writing strategies
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Refusal to write can often be attributed to the student’s lack of confidence in his writing skills. {Image credit (c) Kim M. Bennett, 2017}

Ten Focused Writing Strategies to Use With Reluctant Writers

Here are the ten strategies I’ve used to help writers of all ages to begin the writing process, whether it’s in reading response work, answering social studies chapter questions, or completing a writing prompt. Each of these would be used INSTEAD of the actual written response work. NOTE: Remember ~ these strategies are to be used to help students get from NOTHING to SOMETHING; most of these are not suitable for refining the work of students who write sufficiently but miss the mark in some other way.

To score written tasks as you are working through these strategies, a response would be considered sufficient if the student used the strategy successfully. Once the strategy is mastered, you can add other components to the tasks. {NOTE: These also make good starting points for IEP goals and objectives for writing.}

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writing skills
When a student lacks certain writing skills, or is not confident in his abilities, the writing process often ends before it can really begin. {Image credit (c) Kim M. Bennett, 2018}

For the Student with No Ideas:

For students who aren’t sure what to write, the focus of these strategies is on understanding the prompt or question and having a plan for how to respond to it.

  1. Restate the question in your own words. Instead of answering the questions, the student will state, in his own words, what the question is asking him to do. This also allows you to see if the student understands the task, at all. {This works GREAT in math class, too}.
  2. Write 3 ideas that you can use in the answer. This allows the student to share a small number her ideas without feeling overwhelmed by the whole writing process. The ideas can later be turned into a response, if you wish.

For the Student Who Needs Writing Stamina:

For most of my current students, I just want to get them to write more than a sentence or two. In order to build endurance, I use a variety of strategies that focus on the simply putting pen to paper for a specific amount of space or time. The content, right now, is not important. I even told one student, “Just write ‘I don’t know what to write” over and over until the bell goes off.” He did.

  1. Write X lines. Sometimes, students have a hard time knowing when a written response is completed. By giving the student a target number of lines to fill (which can change as students build endurance), they can easily see when they are “done.”
  2. Fill the time. I often start with 5 minutes, then move up in 5 minute increments to 15 minutes, then upward in 15 minute increments to 45, with the goal that students should be able to write for a full class period, including planning, writing, revision and editing. This is an easy strategy to use with daily journaling.
  3. Fill the space. Some students don’t understand that you can’t write a high-quality response with too few words. In this strategy, students must write enough to fill in all the space provided. This strategy can be used with all ages, and for all subject areas.

For the Student Who Has Trouble With Time Management:

For students who need to use MORE time to write, you can use the “Fill the Time” strategy (described above). For students who get lost in their thinking, I would use the next strategy.

  1. Start within 5 minutes. I set a time for 5 minutes, then make a check mark next to any student who is actively writing anything. Students sitting and still looking at their paper would not get a check.

For the Student Who Writes Off Topic:

I once knew a second grader with autism, who only wanted to write about robots. Sometimes, he’d start writing about the prompt, but he’d always end up writing a robot story. If he was told that the prompt was about something else, he would refuse to write.

  1. List X words or ideas that are related to the prompt. To help students focus better on the topic, a good starting place would be just to list words, phrases and ideas that are related, no matter how obtusely. Simply drawing their attention to the topic initially, often keeps them on the right track in their response.
  2. Cross out X ideas that don’t relate to the prompt. I have a teen student now whose writing is a full page of scattered words, phrases and doodles. On the same page will be names of rap artists, swear words, love notes to his mom, random words copied from the board, and, usually, some content that answers the question. He has an IEP goal of taking this writing and crossing out ten things that don’t match the prompt. This is easier for him than stopping the flow of random ideas.
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word banks
Word banks and other strategies can make writing tasks simpler for reluctant writers. {Image credit (c) Kim M. Bennett, 2015}

For the Student Who Needs a Simpler Task:

Sometimes, the student’s skills in writing (or lack of skills) make the whole process uncomfortable for them, so they avoid or refuse it. For these students, consider a strategy that is focused on what their learning obstacles are:

  1. Use a word/idea bank . Providing a word bank with key words or ideas helps students who aren’t sure if they understand the prompt, have difficulties with recall, struggle with spelling, or just need a place to start. You can even teach students how to create their own word/idea bank from the prompt, itself, as a next step.
  2. Write X sentences. Sometimes, organizing a whole essay is too much for a student. In this case, reducing the prompt to a certain number of sentences makes the goal more attainable. You can also use the “Write X Lines” strategy, if sentence construction is challenging.

Looking for Writing Resources?

If you are looking for notebook resources that you can use with your struggling writers, check out my Teachers Pay Teachers materials.

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Please visit my Teachers Pay Teachers store for writing resources for all ages.

Posted in general education, homeschool, literacy, mind, special education

The Tao of Choosing Textbooks

Tao: the absolute principle underlying the universe, combining within itself the principles of yin and yang, opposite or contrary forces which are actually complementary, interconnected, and interdependent in the natural world.

{Chinese philosophy}

The Textbook Trap

When I first started teaching, I quickly fell into the trap of worrying more about transcripts, course titles and pacing guides than I did about the specific learning goals of my students.  It was the old “coverage” versus “mastery” conflict.

I served on textbook selection committees, where we dutifully compared several texts to the curriculum standards. Then we created materials for standards which weren’t covered well. We cross-referenced and unwrapped and created incredible learning materials, all in the name of ensuring proper coverage of all the state and national standards.

Our thinking was that our kids’ biggest obstacle to learning was that our current textbooks and curriculum materials didn’t adequately cover the current curriculum standards. These, of course, were the standards that were assessed on the current standardized tests.

Our working hypothesis? If we use this standards-based textbook, our kids will do better in school (as measured by the SBAC/CMT/SAT (you fill in the blank here…).

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Schools spend time and money matching textbooks to standards – but does this mean they are matched to the students’ needs? {Image credit: Kim M. Bennett, 2019}

Choosing Textbooks for Students with Disabilities

As I mentally look out into the sea of faces that have graced my classrooms over the past three years, I find that the best-written, most-aligned secondary textbooks in the world would not have addressed the major learning obstacles of the students in front of me:

  • The 11th grader who reads like a first grader, because he can’t hear the single sounds in a word;
  • The gifted 10th grader whose anxiety is so great that he often can’t leave his house to get on the bus;
  • The 8th grader whose major way of addressing stress is to sleep in the hallway;
  • The senior who declares “I don’t f—with division, miss;”
  • The 7th grader who missed most of 5th and 6th grade instruction, due to sitting in a chair in the hall or creating a ruckus somewhere on school grounds;
  • The 10th grader who reveals to you that he always was in bilingual classes when he was younger, and doesn’t know why he exited.

Now, please don’t hear me say that the quality of the textbook doesn’t matter for my students – it matters even MORE for kids who have a lot of ground to cover in a short time. It’s just not the major reason why they are struggling in school.

In my school, my principal uses three measuring sticks to evaluate the success of a classroom program:

  1. Are the kids safe?
  2. Are the kids in the classroom?
  3. Are the kids learning?

Frankly, prior to arriving in our behavioral health program, none of these things was true. When I choose what I do in class, I have to balance what my state and district say the kids need to understand, know and do with what they need, in order to engage as learners, at all.

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When selecting textbooks, think carefully of the learning needs of your student, first. {Image credit: Kim M. Bennett, 2017}

What I Need From a Textbook

As I grew as a teacher, I began to shift my focus back toward the needs of my students. I had to ask myself critical questions when choosing textbooks and other instructional materials:

  • What is the primary goal of my instruction?
  • What is the student’s main obstacle to reaching that goal, right now?
  • How will THIS resource help them overcome that obstacle?
  • Is there something that would do the job better than this resource?

So often we use a particular resource because it is the one that we have available, or it’s the one that is traditionally used for that grade or by your department, or it’s the one that we have already mastered, as the instructor. Convenience and adult needs supersede the instructional needs of the students. When I started asking myself these questions, I found that I could not draw a good line of fit between the answers and the textbook I chose. Not good.

At the start of this past school year, out of my ten students, I had ZERO who chose to read (“Books? I don’t read books…”). When an activity was textbook-based, they would try to answer the questions without consulting the textbook. The group of students ranged in grade from 7th to 12th grade, with reading levels from 1st to 5th grade level. By the end of the year, several students would read for fun, all had independent reading selections for assigned time, and all would read along with the shared reading. And they were able to regularly use textbooks to answer simple questions. What changed?

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Engaging students with a textbook, at all, is often the first obstacle to a student’s literacy learning. {Image Credit: Kim M. Bennett, 2014}

When Kids Choose Their Own Textbooks

Over the past three years, I have let students help me choose textbooks and literary pieces for the class. Why? What about the standards alignment? What about my pacing guide, you ask? Simply put: they won’t pick up the book.  It doesn’t matter how good it is – if it stays on the shelf, I’m sunk.

Recently, my assistant was serving snack, which we keep in a locked closet in the classroom, which also doubles as the math book storage for our school. One of my students pulled a textbook off the shelf, and handed it to me, without any comment. I asked him about it, and he flicked the cover with his finger and threw his hands up like, “Can’t you see?” {he has autism, so communication sometimes means detective work…}. I asked him if he’d like to use that book, and he said yes, but when I asked him why, he said, “Cuz!” {read, “Duh … can’t you see?”}.

Guess what math book I’m using next year.

Over the past three years, I’ve grown to trust my students’ instincts on book selection, because getting them to even take the book is the first obstacle to their learning. Their {real!} reasons for selecting the book said a lot about obstacles to their learning:

  • “The cover looks dope.” {read: it looks like it’s about kids like ME}
  • “I think I can read most of these words.” {read: reading is hard for me}
  • “I think I know how to do some of the stuff already.” {read: I don’t feel confident in my skills}
  • “I saw a picture of a guy playing football, and I like sports.” {read: I think it might be interesting}
  • “They just tell me what I need to do.” {read: the wording is straightforward, so I won’t get lost}
  • “I can tell what to read.” {read: the structure is clear, so I can see what’s most important}
  • “There’s an activity that would be fun on page 26.” {read: I need hands-on learning}
  • “I saw a nutritional label on page 15, and that’s important for kids.” {read: there is a life purpose for the content}
  • “It doesn’t look like a lot of work.” {read: life is overwhelming – I need a place that isn’t}

Interestingly, some newer textbooks include many sidebar notes, highlighted sections, boxed mini-stories, etc. Most of my students (and my own youngest son!) find these graphic “aids” to be just the opposite! For many students with attention problems, reading difficulties or other disabilities, the less cluttered a page is, the easier it is to navigate. If I can’t choose another book, I instruct students to mask out the part of the page we’re not reading. Later, I explicitly teach how to use the sidebars (or not).

Valuing student choices values the student .

National Council of Teachers of English, 2016

Action Research: Kids Choosing Their Own Learning Materials

Over the past three years, I have had good success engaging students with texts, when I let them help me choose the book to use for class. Here are some examples of instructional materials that my students chose and used successfully.

Textbooks

For students who are below-grade-level readers, students with attention difficulties who need uncluttered print resources, and students whose mental health issues make it hard for them to focus in class, I’ve found using the Pacemaker books from Globe Fearon to be a game-changer.

I have personally used the Pacemaker United States History and Pacemaker United States Geography for multiple years. The content is high school level, but the readability is 3rd to 4th grade level. The teacher’s resources include a Reader’s Guide, note-taking sheets for each section of each chapter. These Reader’s Guides start out with simple fill-in notes, and become more sophisticated as the student progresses through the book, functioning as an accelerated reading support system.  Each chapter has a quiz which is written on the same level as the book, but also has a GED Test Prep quiz. I copy the two quizzes back to back, and encourage my kids to use the strategies they learned with the harder text – something that all students need to practice.

I will say that the pages are very much unadorned. You won’t find colorful illustrations, and the pages themselves are not slick and pretty. I haven’t noticed my students complaining about that.

Steck-Vaughn also publishes textbooks with the struggling reader in mind. The high school level content is presented in text that is below grade level, and the chapters are short and manageable for most learners. The text is controlled so it supports below-grade-level readers while retaining critical content vocabulary.  The pages, themselves, are a bit more “fancy” than the Pacemaker textbooks. Again, my kids haven’t commented on this.

pacemaker us geography http://allkidscanlearn.school.blog
Instructional materials include items that support reading comprehension and vocabulary development. Click here to purchase on Amazon.
pacemaker us history http://allkidscanlearn.school.blog
Pacemaker books present high school topics in a more readable, accessible format. Click here to purchase on Amazon.

Novels

My kids gravitate toward novels that feature teens that are imperfect, trying to overcome giant obstacles in their lives. In short, my students want to read about kids like themselves. Here is a short list of some recent favorites. All were pulled off the shelf by a student (“Miss, can we read this book next?”):

Bronx Masquerade (Nikki Grimes, 2002)  [GE 3.8] –  a novel presented as a collection of personal narratives and poetry by a group of Harlem teens in a high school English class. My kids didn’t want to put the book down this year. They were even inspired to write their own poetry, as a result. There isn’t a film version, but the movie Freedom Writers (2007) is a perfect follow-up to this book.

Day of Tears (Julius Lester, 2007) [GE 5] – A unique novel, written like a screen play, about a group of slaves who lived on the same plantation. The novel follows their lives through generations of slave owners and into the days of emancipation. The novel is based on real historical events surrounding real people, on a real plantation. This book works better with students who can infer, as the reader has to fill in some events mentally as you go through the novel.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (Jonathan Safron Foer, 2005) [GE 6.5] – a novel  about a boy who discovers a mysterious key left by his father, who died in the World Trade Center  on September 11, 2001. I actually got this book after one of my students recommended it to me as a personal read. Most of my kids were born in the aftermath immediately after this event, so they have many questions about 9/11. And, yes, there is a film adaptation!.

Bullyville (Francine Prose, 2008) [GE 6.8] – This novel, a story about a boy who gets a scholarship to attend a prestigious private school after his father dies in the World Trade Center, hit home with many of my students, who had either been bullies or had been bullied. The mild profanity and teen violence is real and uncensored. We tied our daily writing prompts to this book.

The Big Empty (J. B. Stephens, 2004) [GE 7] – A dystopian novel about a group of teens navigating a post-apocalyptic world that has been wiped out by a virus. The US government has relocated citizenry to the coasts, leaving the middle states “empty.” Or, so they say. A group of my students selected this for their literature circle one year, and I’ve been recommending it to kids since then. (NOTE: there is a film with the same name that is NOT the same story, and not kid-friendly – be careful).

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (John Boyne, 2007) [GE 7.4] – as one of my students exclaimed, “This happened to kids like us! That’s the crazy thing…” This is an emotionally hard and sad read about two boys, one Jewish boy who was a prisoner in a death camp, and the son of one of his captors, during World War II. We watched the film versionimmediately after, and the kids sat in total silence while the closing credits rolled. After the credits were over, no one could talk. (NOTE: This book pairs well with Endless Steppe by Esther Hautzig (May 18 1995) [GE 6.5], a true story about a Jewish family relocated to a labor camp in Siberia during the same time period).

How Do You Choose Learning Materials?

Here are some resources I find handy when matching instructional materials to my students’ needs.

~ Fountas & Pinnell Guided Reading Levels and Grade Level Equivalents

~ Lexile Levels and Grade Level Equivalents

~ Scholastic Book Wizard (for leveling books)

How have you chosen materials to use with your students? Share in the comments, below.

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