Tuesday, November 24, 2009

UCIRA Conference: Highlighting Linda Gambrell

Happy Thanksgiving, Friends!

Before you head off for feasting, I thought I'd share the HIGHlights of the Utah Council of the International Reading Association (UCIRA) conference that I attended on Friday and Saturday. WoW! What a conference ~ one of the best that I have attended here in Utah. The keynote speakers were informative AND entertaining - always nice! The authors were inspiring AND humorous - always appreciated! And the breakouts helpful AND funny - NOT always! 

Because I'm basically Pollyanna Salisbury, who believes participants can ALWAYS dig SOMETHING out of the most dismal presentation, I won't examine lowLIGHTS - tempting as that sometimes is. Here goes:


  • Mission Possible: Reading All Readers - Keynote Speech, Friday morning
      •  During SSR students should have a CHOICE of reading materials, so give each one a large ziplock bag, and instruct them to place 3 books inside: 1. the book he/she is reading now; 2. the book she/he will read next; 3. some easy or escape reading like a favorite magazine - People? Hot Rod? Horse and Hound?
      • At the end of SSR, students should be able to take a few minutes to share what they read that day with a partner. Such sharing expands background knowledge of both partners AND previews another book for each as well.
  • Text Clues: An Intervention for Struggling Readers - breakout session
    • Retelling is a good assessment tool to check comprehension, but students need to learn how to retell and summarize. Learning this strategy helps memory retention. 
      • Retelling: 
        • Provide words or lines from the text in the order they appear in the story or article, and then have students use those clues to help them retell.
        • Move them to creating their own retelling clues.
      • Summarizing:
        • Students need to know characteristics of a good summary, so show them 3 different summaries and discuss which is the best and why.
        •  After learning characteristics, teach students to write good summaries through modeling and then sharing text clues.
          • Give them the first and last line of the summary and then direct them to fill in the middle 3 to 5 sentences.
          • Next provide the first OR the last line and instruct them to complete the 4-6 lines the follow or precede those lines. 
I have lots more to share, but rather than write too lengthy of a post, I'll add more later. I KNOW I always write that, and then you never see part 2, but maybe this time I'll surprise you!

ENJOY your LONG weekend, and leave SCHOOL at SCHOOL.

Best wishes,

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Challenging the Way We Teach Reading

I'm not sure which has been crazier - my work life or my personal life! Either way, I feel like I'm that chubby little gerbil running insanely in place on the wheel of life, wondering if I'm really making any progress on any front. The only solace is that I know I have many friends and colleagues who completely empathize as they are racing around their own gerbil world!

With that confession off my mind and just in time for Halloween, I want to share some insights I gained from reading Kelly Gallagher's latest book with the freaky title, Readicide: How Schools are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About It. I first "met" Kelly via his book Reading Reasons: Motivational Mini-Lessons for Middle and High School - a must for your professional library - and have followed him ever since. (Not "followed" as in stalking, but as in Googling for updates about his work.)

Kelly Gallagher is a practitioner with more than 22 years experience in teaching and inspiring students and teachers alike. While some may challenge his credentials as lacking research experience, that does not mean Mr. G. doesn't do his homework. He backs up his opinions by quoting the research of education heavy weights as well as sharing teacher research from his own classes. Additionally, he is not hesitant to challenge poor programs or ill-advised ideas, be they from the US Department of Education or best-selling practitioners like himself. Because of these reasons, I value his insights.

While Readicide is a bit unnerving, the pages substantiate what many educators believe but no longer practice in light of the pressure of student performance - aka NCLB and standardized testing. Kelly's book maintains that schools are killing off the love of reading, often through the "mind-numbing practices" found inside classrooms. While we may be driving up test scores, we're lynching life-long reading, which is defeating the purpose of teaching and supporting reading in school.

The author reiterates the importance of reading through graphs, charts, and quotations from reported research. The strongest argument in my mind, however, is his concern over the lack of "knowledge capital" in the lives of so many of our students. "Knowledge capital" is what readers bring to the page - schema, background knowledge, prior knowledge are possible synonyms for the term. Kelly reminds us of "the large wealth of knowledge capital that comes from the voluminous reading of books, newspapers, blogs, and magazines" (p. 38).  If the systematic annihilation of the love of reading continues, so will knowledge capital dwindle.

What then are the factors contributing to the state of affairs? Kelly lists six:
  • There is a dearth of interesting materials in our schools.
  • Many schools have removed novels and other longer challenging works to provide teachers and students with more test preparation time.
  • Students are not doing enough reading in school.
  • The overteaching of books prevents our students from experiencing the place where all serious readers want to be - the reading flow (when a reader is so engrossed, he is oblivious of anything else going on around him.)
  • The overanalysis of books creates instruction that values the trivial at the expense of the meaningful.
  • The overteaching of academic texts is spilling over and damaging our students' chances of becoming lifelong readers.
What can be done to stem the tide? Kelly declares that if students are to "discover what it is like to come up for air while reading, if they are to have any chance of becoming lifelong readers, they will need what all readers need when they read: access to great books and large doses of uninterrupted time to read them" (p. 73). Sounds simple, doesn't it? Raises lots of questions, too, right?

If you're interested in some of Kelly's suggestions for ending readicide, check out Literacy Link Up!

What are your thoughts about the way educators teach reading? What do you think we can do to restore the love of reading AND teach students what they need to KNOW and DO to become proficient readers?

Please respond; you have my attention!


Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Welcome Back!!!!!!

Hello Dear Colleagues,

WoW! What a start to the 2009-10 school year! Lots of changes, concerns, and controversy! Nevertheless, students return to the classrooms, and parents expect teachers to provide the same high level of education they always have. As I visited schools that first week before students returned, I was thrilled to see how many great teachers remained with Jordan School District. Knowing that, I feel confident that the expected level education will not only be maintained, it will be surpassed.

With that said, I want to welcome you all back! Regardless of the warm weather, September is here and cooler temperatures can't be too far behind, can they? (Did you notice the blog's new motif? More fallish, don't you think?)

Today, I have reprinted the latest information about MY Access and the online Direct Writing Assignment (DWA) that is rolling out this school year. The following statements summarizes Jordan School District's status with this online writing program. Hopefully, this message will answer some of your questions:

  • MY Access subscriptions are available and recommended for 9th and 10th grades.
  • Based upon the number of licenses our district purchased in 2008, your school has been allotted the same number as last year - with the exception of high schools.
  • I will set up classes for your school again this year. Please let me know if you want this completed before last year's subscriptions expire on October 14, 2009.
  • As last year's subscriptions will expire on October 14, 2009, I will need to deactivate any classes I create under the OLD licenses and reactivate them under THIS YEAR'S licenses.
As many of you know, the state legislature enacted a law that requires 5th and 8th graders to take the Direct Writing Assessment (DWA) online. This is what we know at this time:

  • The USOE's committee of members from the assessment and curriculum departments awarded an online writing formative and summative assessment program to Measurement, Inc. Click HERE to learn more about "Writing Practice Program," the formative assessment tool, and be sure to watch the video.
  • This means the state office will finance Measurement Inc. subscriptions for 5th and 8th graders in districts throughout the state.
  • On September 18th a presentation to assessment directors will be held in Nebo District.
  • The writing assessment will be a persuasive essay this year.
  • Teacher training for Measurement, Inc. will be delivered online.
  • So that we can collect data on this year's 9th graders, Jordan School District will set up a benchmark assessment using MY Access.
Authentic writing opportunity: You may have noticed the widget next to this posting. Yes, I did contribute an essay, a memoir of sorts, to the National Gallery of Writing AND it was accepted!!! (Yes, I am thrilled and most humbled.) BUT, that isn't why I pasted the classy widget on Link2Literacy. It's there because I want you, YES, YOU teachers, to contribute something as well. AND I also want you to invite your students to submit an essay, memoir, blog posting, etc. You must hurry as these will be published on October 20th ~ The National Day on Writing. Dr. Debbie Dean and I are trying to establish a local gallery, and I can't think of anything better to encourage young authors about the importance AND the thrill of publishing your own work. PLEASE check out the links and consider making this part of your writing curriculum!

Professional Book Reviews: Another change this year is my goal to summarize professional books and/or articles I read that I think will interest you. The first featured author will be Kelly Gallagher's works: Reading Reasons and Readacide, his latest book. I am not a speed reader, but I'll try to zip through some of these "best sellers" and tell you all about them. In addition, I hope to include any learning activities associated with the publications.

Upcoming Events:

  • September 14th is the first Jordan Council of International Reading Association (JCIRA) meeting. I pledged to bring in more secondary presenters/topics, and I think I have succeeded. So please join us at JSD's new professional development center at 4:30 P.M. to hear about the latest in YA and adolescent literature, as well as picture books, non-fiction, etc.
  • October 23rd is the Utah Council of Teachers of English Fall Conference. Presenters include Debbie Dean, Tom Romano, AND award-winning author, Gary Soto! Please circle the date and beg your principal to send you to this conference!
I look forward to chatting with you again via Link2Literacy. Please take a minute to comment and tell me how I can make this a better place to learn.

Take care, Friends,

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Saying Good-bye to '08-09 and Many Colleagues

Dearest Friends,

Memorial Day has come and gone; June grass is colorizing mountainsides; and temperatures are rising – in and out of the classroom! School year ’08-’09 is nearing the end. But this culmination is different than any other as we not only say good bye to students, but we bid farewell to many of our colleagues who will be part of the new Canyons School District. While this can't help but be a melancholy occasion, it is my hope that we keep in touch through email correspondence, mutual opportunities for professional development, blogs, wikis, websites, and professional organizations.

I am happy to announce that the Jordan Council of the International Reading Association (JCIRA) will remain the local council for teachers in both Canyons and Jordan Sistricts. Next year, I am working with the JCIRA board to provide more secondary presenters. Already I have lined up Terry Jensen of Valley High to share information about his wildly successful "Book Affair." I am also inviting teachers from other schools to talk about their "literacy nights" and poetry slams.

Cindy Mitchell, host of the blog site, Kiss the Book, will also review dozens of YA novels at one of our meetings. She reads and reviews more than anybody I know! You won't want to miss this opportunity to learn about the latest and greatest in adolescent literature.

I am also working on scheduling Sara Zarr, author of National Book Award Finalist Story of a Girl and Sweethearts, to speak to us in March. I've gotten to know Sara a little, and I'm quite confident she'll be able to join us. She is awesome as is her writing. Be sure to add her works to your summer reading list. (If you want to check out a teen online writing experience hosted by Sara, click here. It's looks like great fun!)

Brad Wilcox, author of the children's picture book There's Always a Way Annie McRae, will give tips on becoming better writers and better teachers of writing. I attended Brad's presentation at Valley High, and if you think he can only present to elementary students and teachers, he'll really surprise you.

That's just a hint about what's coming next fall in JCIRA. You'll want to participate for the following reasons:
  • Great presenters and professional development opportunity
  • One-half credit hour of professional development can be earned
  • Membership of one of the strongest organizations that promotes literacy in our area
  • Opportunity to mingle with current and former colleagues in both districts

Before signing off, I invite you to go to the Literacy Link-up Wikispace to find a list summer reading titles for your students. You can copy and paste the info and give it to them as a farewell gift. I also invite you to revisit the blog I posted last year about reading for pleasure.

If you're wondering how to make the most of your summer, check out Dr. Deborah Dean's UCTE/LA Teaching Tips for May. She provides some great ideas for professional growth in our chosen profession.

This summer I will continue posting to Link2Literacy and will notify you of the topics in case you'd like to drop by and say hello! In the meantime, enjoy the rest of June, July, and most of August.

Wishing you all well,


PS. Other LiteracyLink-up Booklists: Novel Links; Graphic Novels; and "Guy" Books

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Read 180 Revealed

Image created at Wordle.com

Hello Colleagues,

Scholastic’s Read 180 curriculum is a reading intervention program to help students at the Tier 2 level, as described by the Response to Intervention (RtI) model. It is designed to support secondary students who are two or more years behind grade-level reading. (Scholastic also offers System 44, a program for Tier 3 students.) To follow the Read 180 model as prescribed, teachers are assigned no more than 20 students per class, which lasts for an 80-minute block.

During that time period students participate in whole group instruction for 20 minutes, and then divide into 3 groups that start at different stations or centers. One group may be sent to the computers to practice reading fluency, listening, comprehension, and word work. For example, students may choose to develop comprehension skills by watching a short video that introduces the text and builds background knowledge. Next, he will read a related passage at a rate that challenges but does not frustrate him. Finally, he’ll answer some comprehension questions.

While at the computers, students may also practice fluency by quietly reading the passage aloud. A microphone records the read-aloud, and then the program plays it back so the student can hear how smoothly she read the paragraphs, the intonation of her voice, and the speed at which she reads. Spelling is another option, and the program pronounces the word, states it in a sentence, reviews how to spell the word if she misspells it, and the student tries again.

Another group will go to a designated area in the room to read books at their independent reading level. With the exception of one student, all chose non-fiction from the library of leveled books on the day I observed Lisa Morey's class at West Jordan Middle School.

"Hey, do like this book?" I asked one girl who sat with her friends on a comfy couch.

"Yeah, it's pretty good," she answered.

"Do you prefer fiction or non-fiction?"

"Fiction, but this is pretty interesting," she added.

"What about this class? Do you like it?" I changed the subject. Her "yeah" held a smile in it, and when I asked why, she told me it helped her be a better reader.

Another young woman seemed to be engrossed in King of the Hill. Surprised to see this animated sit-com in book form, I asked her if it was anything like the series. "You know, a little naughty?" Perplexed at my question, she turned to her friend who translated my question into Spanish. She laughed, shook her head and said no.

Lisa's Read 180 classes include many English Language Learners, and the teacher is very pleased at the progress her students are making. The student who translated for me started school knowing very little English, and now she's helping a new student who just moved here from Mexico.

The third station is small-group instruction with the teacher. I watched, listened and participated as Lisa read an from from Bad Boy: A Memoir by Walter Dean Meyers, found in the Read 180 anthology. She asked the 6 students in the group to review what had happened earlier in their reading and then started to read, stopping on occasion to allow the students to say the next word in the sentence in unison. The easy instructional strategy helps Lisa know who's following along and who isn't. (It didn't take long before she warned one embarrassed girl to quit texting and put her cell phone away!)

Throughout the session, Lisa modeled "think-alongs" as well as going back into the text to answer questions. She also invited students to demonstrate their understanding through comprehension questions and context clue analysis.

When interviewing Lisa after class, she enthusiastically endorsed this program that she skeptically took on two years ago. Because of her extensive education and experience in reading research and teaching, she remarked, "I was out to prove Scholastic wrong." But she's happily eating her words.

"This program has saved these students lives," she emphatically added. There is not a support program for many students who "miss something along the way" in learning to read. Maybe 5 students of the 40 she teaches in 2 different blocks have not progressed as much as they could have. "But that's because they really didn't care, and so they didn't try." Lisa is especially thrilled at the progress of her ELL students. While the books are not written in Spanish, the computer program features a Spanish tutorial that is especially beneficial to them.

With 2 years under her belt, she knows what she will and won't do next year. Here's a peek:

I will ~

  • continue to change up groups every 3 weeks instead of every week.

  • continue to change their starting stations once a week.

  • assign "during reading" and "post-reading" learning activity sheets to monitor silent reading.

  • require students to finish reading a book a week.

  • continue to celebrate our class goal to read 1,000,000 words with a trip to McDonalds where we will read and discuss the nutrition labels.

  • work to keep this class for 8th-grade tier 2 striving readers.

I won't ~

  • combine 7th and 8th grades; 7th graders really need to be with their peers their first year in middle school.

Lest any reader of this blog thinks this is the panacea they have been looking for, please realize there is no such thing. Of course, there are many critics of Read 180 as there are with any program that smacks of scripting or replacing the teacher. One school in our district tried the program several years ago, but it has fallen by the wayside. Whether that happened because of limited success or teacher turn-over is not certain, but another school besides WJMS has also successfully implemented Read 180. The common denominator in both successful instances is the teacher.

"I just LOVE this program," Lisa repeated. And the students love her. When I interviewed them, they all endorsed the experience, but they also said they really liked Ms. Morey. She makes this program work, and various teachers from the district who have observed her classes second their opinions!

Bye for now,


Monday, May 11, 2009

from "A Morning with David McCullough"

Hello All,

This past Saturday morning, I sat at the feet of David McCullough with scores of other educators in the Mormon Tabernacle. In addition to the thrill of listening to Mr. McCullough's warm voice for an hour, we learned that two of Jordan School Districts' employees were winners of the ConSource Essay Contest, sponsored by Bonneville Communications, Kirton McConkie P.C. and Ray Quinney & Nebeker P.C. As winners, Pam Su'a, social studies consultant, and Rick Ochoa, history teacher at Alta High School, were invited to visit with the famous author prior to the morning's program. Congratulations to them both!!!

Anticipating a speech about John Adams, Harry Truman, or Americans in Paris between 1830 and 1930 - his current project, I was surprised that David McCullough's remarks focused upon teachers and teaching. Heavens knows I was not disappointed because he managed to lyrically blend historical figures and events into his personal experiences thus invigorating my love of history and education.

I created the following entry from my notes because Mr. McCullough's remarks addressed teaching, content, reading, and writing - important topics to us all! A webcast of the event is posted on the ConSource website, if you would like to view the speech in its entirety. Soon, Pam's and Rick's essays will also be added to the site.

The author started the morning by introducing us to favorite teachers of some important historical figures. We know these educators were favorites because their famous students expressed appreciation for them in their writings.
  • Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. dedicated his farewell address upon retiring from Harvard to Pierre Louis, a teacher he studied under while in Paris.

  • Thomas Jefferson said of his favorite teacher, William Small of the College of William and Mary, that he “probably fixed the destinies of my life.”
  • John Adams flourished under the tutelage of Joseph Marsh because of his kindness, thus Adams became the "essence of transforming because education."
  • Theodore Roosevelt grew to love geology because of his favorite teacher, Nathaniel Southgate Shale.

Mr. McCullough also shared a story about Louis Agassi, considered the most influential teacher of the nineteenth century, to illustrate the importance "[of learning] until you don't forget." Once he accepted an applicant as his pupil, Agassi immediately pulled a pickled fish from a bottle, placed it upon a pewter platter and ordered the student to "look at your fish." After which, the professor left the room and the "ordeal of the fish'' began and continued for hours, if not days, until the new student "saw how little he saw before."

Often asked, "What takes longer - research or writing," Mr. McCullough has never been questioned about how much time he spends thinking. The author has a plaque in his office that reads "Look at your fish" to remind him to put what he is studying on the table, to look, and to think.

Although Mr. McCullough did not know renowned teacher Margaret McFarland, he did know her famous pupil - Fred Rogers - as both gentlemen were Pittsburgh natives and worked extensively in public television. The author noted that Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood was based upon the principles extolled by Margaret McFarland, among which was this one, "What matters most in the classroom is attitude."

"Exactly what attitude?" Mr. McCullough asked. "The attitude of the teacher toward the subject matter. Show them what you love; you can't love what you don't know. Really know it!"

The author then talked of his teachers who really knew and loved the content they shared with their students. One was an English teacher who also taught drawing and painting. This educator did not see a line between the art classroom and the English classroom, and he worked with his students. "We knew he loved [what he did], and we wanted to be in on it," Mr. M. said of his former teacher.

"Teaching is a gift," he continued, "an art form and a manifestation of leadership." The oldest constitution in the world is the one drawn up for the Massachusetts Commonwealth, authored by John Adams. Among its admonitions is the declaration that it shall be the duty of the government to educate everyone - not just in agriculture, finances, etc., but also in values such as honesty, frugality, and humor!

The lack of honesty in today's leaders reflects a lack of learning and applying values, and Mr. McCullough asked, "Who were their teachers? Who were their parents?" In all the concerns about keeping bodies fit, he worries that we are not "keeping fit in the mind." He believes that "you are what you read," and if we are interested in our founding fathers, we must not just read about them, we must "read what they read," as that is one place where they garnered their values.

What did those gentlemen and gentlewomen read? Essay on Man by Alexander Pope, and works by Miguel de Cervantes and William Shakespeare. Today, we quote these authors, and we don't even know it, Mr. McCullough declared, and then he challenged the audience to check out Bartlett's Famous Quotations, if we wanted to review Pope's, Cervantes', and Shakespeare's influences upon our conversations.

Every leader needs to be a reader, especially of history and biography, and again the historian reminds us that what we read is as important as reading. "Don't ask students to read what you don't want to read," he advised. "Like dreary textbooks." Instead, turn them to the literature of history, and he mentioned Killer Angels: A Novel of the Civil War as an excellent example.

Mr. McCullough wrapped up his hour with us by reviewing an experiment he tried while teaching at Cornell University. Half the students' semester grade was earned through examining and researching information based upon a historical photograph. No two students had the same photograph, but they could ask anyone for help, including their esteemed instructor. He invited them to "work out the puzzle" found in the photo and the statement written on the back.

It was a great success because they took ownership of that historical moment captured on film, and they "learned until they wouldn't forget" by looking, thinking, and writing. He extolled the importance of writing in all content areas. "Nothing focuses the brain like writing," he exclaimed, and then reminded us that all histories are stories of humans - "When in the course of human events ... ."

As a final suggestion, Mr. McCullough encouraged teachers to assign students to find a historical building or to visit a cemetery and invite their pupils to "work out the puzzle."

"Fire their furnaces with what they love!"
~ David McCullough

I can't sign off with anything better than that statement!

Best wishes,


Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Accessing MY Access!

Hello Colleagues!

Ms. Spring is toying with us again! Because she splits her time with winter, it's hard to believe both warmer weather and fourth quarter are at hand! As the school year winds down, so does the roll-out of two important programs: Scholastic Reading Inventory (SRI) and MY Access! My last posting discusses the what and why-fores of implementing SRI, and obviously, this entry explores "MY Access!" (MA), the online writing program developed by Vantage Learning.

The draw to using this tool is the "program's powerful scoring engine [that scores] students' essays instantly and provides targeted feedback, freeing teachers from [scoring] thousands of papers by hand, [thus] giving them more time to conduct differentiated instruction and curriculum planning" (Vantage Learning). This does not mean teachers do not read or grade their students' writing. It does mean, however, that students can write more, receive instant feedback, revise numerous times, and improve their scores before handing in a final copy that the teacher will grade.

Jordan School District piloted this program during the 2007-08 school year with five schools: two middle and three high schools on both sides of the district. Starting with the 2008-09, 17 schools requested that the program be extended to their students. Because of a joint venture with several other school districts, JSD was able to do this. Over the summer, fall, and winter, "lead" teachers from the 17 schools received training that they passed onto their language arts colleagues.

While LA teachers are the initial users, it hoped that MY Access! content area teachers will use this tool in their classrooms as well. Many of the prompts address topics in science, social studies, math, and other content areas. For example, one middle school health teacher saw how she could use a MA pilot prompt about "crossing the Rubicon" (going beyond the point of no return). She wants her students to write about a life choice they might make where there would be no turning back and how that would affect the rest of their lives.

Teachers' responses to MY Access! have been overwhelmingly positive. This is not to say that glitches and problems are not present, but the strengths of the program currently outweigh the weaknesses. At a meeting where we discussed "praises & problems," we heard comments about students who rarely wrote a word in the past. Not only were they composing, they were revising over and over to improve their writing. Several other responses noted the improvement in student-teacher dialogue about writing. Teachers noted the elevated discourse that used understood common vocabulary, thus improving process and product.

One of my favorite teacher comments came from Terry Jensen of Valley High School. He said his students look at raising their writing scores in the same light as raising their video game scores. While that may not be the best motivation for writing, it does get them writing!

After listening to teachers' comments, I wanted to know what students thought about MY Access!, so I asked for volunteers to allow me to visit classrooms and interview students. Jill Jenkins and Shauna Mitchell of South Jordan Middle School kindly invited me to talk with their kids, and it was a terrific experience because of their willing and candid remarks! While I cannot list all their comments, I do want to share several responses with visitors and followers of Link2Literacy.

  • Not every student in Jill Jenkins' third period loves to write, but they agree with their classmate Eric that if they have to, they'd rather write with MY Access! as it helps them be better writers.
  • Jordan was writing his first draft of a letter to Governor Huntsman about the driving age. (By the way, he does not want that age raised to 18.) He said he likes the fact that he can get feedback that helps improve his writing.
  • Carlie and Carlee said they really liked the preparation for DWA that the program provided.
  • Jessica talked about the feedback. Most the time it’s right on, but she’s smart enough to realize it’s still a program that occasionally suggests replacing overused words that don’t make sense. For example, “housework” for homework.
  • Kendal submitted a request to Vantage Learning. He’d like MY Access! to indicate spelling and grammar errors as he writes – like Microsoft Word.
  • Kyle mentioned he raised his score from 4.5 to 5.3 by adding transitions and an example. He also noted that his teacher guided him through this revision process.

When I interviewed the 24 students in Mrs. Mitchell's second period a few days later, only one student said he liked to write. But when I asked how many thought MA helped ease the pain of writing, all hands went up. Furthermore, 17 students indicated that they submit more than one revision, and 21 have used MA at home. Here are some comments from Mrs. M's students:

  • Jace appreciates the way MA helps writers change what they don't like, especially "voice."
  • Dane said he keeps revising until his score is better than a "4," while Connor revises his writing until the work surpasses the "proficient" standard.
  • Parker and Tyler feel MA helps them become better writers because of the instant feedback, and Parker added that now he develops his writing more, and the "voice" is stronger.
  • Colton recognizes that ultimately he has the option to change or not change his writing as suggested by the feedback's recommendations. Ultimately, he knows he's still in charge.
  • Amanda really likes the Wizards that help her organize her thoughts before writing.
  • Sarah, like Kendal in Mrs. Jenkins' class, wishes MA would embed spell and grammar checks into the program, but when I asked the class why that might NOT be a good idea, we concluded that students may learn more by revisiting the errors before correcting them.

I also visited Mrs. Jenkins' ninth grade honors class, and received many of the same positive responses. One student, however, stated that MY Access! was not helpful at all. She feels confident in her own writing and thinks the feedback is ineffective. A few other students agreed with her in part, noting that sometimes the score was significantly higher or lower than the ultimate grade they received from their teacher.

The bottom line is that MY Access! is a tool for both teachers and students, and as with any tool, we can use it when we need it. Young writers and their teachers are still in charge of how and when to use MY Access!

Some teachers are much more confident with the program than others. For teachers who feel less than confident and have little time to "play around" with the program, I recommend that you click onto the "Resource and Training Center," and then scroll down to "MY Access! Instructional Documentation" heading. "Lesson Plans" is the 16th entry, and the last choice after the heading is "MY Access! Instructional Units." Checkout these two options to find step-by-step units and lesson plans for various genres and topics. THEY ARE EXCELLENT!! By using them with your students, you will learn so much about this program and your students will, too. Best of all, I wager they will enjoy a positive and successful writing experience!

Please leave your comments. I'd love to hear from you!

Take care, my friends,


Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Why SRI?

Dear Friends,

February's 28 days makes this month fly by so fast, especially if those days are filled with teaching, testing, and conferencing with parents!

As promised, I am continuing a review of 3 technology tools widely used in Jordan School District. Today I am writing about Scholastic Reading Inventory (SRI). SRI is a research-based, computer-adaptive assessment for grades K-12. This instrument measures students’ levels of reading comprehension, and results are reported in terms of a Lexile measurement that gauges both reader ability and text difficulty on the same scale. (Note: Many details about Scholastic Reading Inventory can be found at JSD's Language Arts website.

The purpose of this posting, however, is to explain why and how our district adopted this program and to share a few suggestions about using SRI data. As secondary literacy concerns worked their way to the forefront, teachers and administrators raised several questions about the assessment of reading comprehension. While the Iowa Basic Skills Test and the Utah Basic Skills Competency Test (UBSCT) measure reading comprehension, the results of these tests are slow in coming. Teachers wishing to identify students with comprehension difficulties would have to painstakingly search through student files from years past to find results.

While there are other excellent assessment tools available to screen students, they are often time consuming and require one-on-one administration. Qualitative Reading Inventory (QRI) is an example. This excellent program serves as an informal assessment that goes beyond comprehension to measure word identification and fluency. It definitely has a place in assessing students as an additional measurement. Unfortunately, it takes weeks to administer the QRI assessment to all incoming seventh graders, for example, and several more to assess their progress later in the year.

These concerns demanded a program that could be used quickly and easily with numerous students 2 or 3 times a year. While such a program did not need to be diagnostic in nature, it needed to identify students whose reading comprehension was below grade level in order to determine which ones could benefit from reading intervention.

To decide which available program would work the best for Jordan School District schools, a task force researched the possibilities, requested proposals from those companies, and then studied the proposals. The committee decided to invest in Scholastic Reading Inventory for several reasons, but the main ones include the following:
  • Easy to administer
  • Ability to progress-monitor
  • Computer-based and computer-adaptive - depending upon students' responses, questions become easier or more difficult
  • Data disaggregated in multiple ways to satisfy many needs
  • Most cost-effective
The second option was the Gates-MacGinitie Reading Tests. Although this test is available online, it can only be administered at the beginning and the ending of the school year; thus progress monitoring throughout terms is not possible. Secondly, the test is not computer adaptive. Furthermore, the results can be converted into Lexile measurements, but those measurements are not "native" or built into the test as they are in the SRI program.

Having the tool to help create a picture of readers' strengths and weaknesses naturally forces teachers to ask, "What should I do with this information?" Our district decided we needed to promote 8 strategies that teachers in all content areas could teach their students. Because all students are enrolled in English classes, language arts teachers administer the SRI assessments; therefore the lead teachers were invited back to two follow-up meetings to learn about or review the comprehension framework of 8 comprehension strategies. The strategies are as follows:
  • Access and build background knowledge
  • Predict
  • Make Inferences
  • Question
  • Monitor Understanding
  • Visualize
  • Determine Importance
  • Summarize
These teachers learned the best methods of teaching students how, when, and why they should use these strategies, and that's through direct and explicit instruction. Furthermore, teachers were introduced to related instructional tools that support students in delving deeper into difficult texts. The lead teachers were expected to share the training they received with all their colleagues in their department.

The last leg of this journey is to help teachers examine the SRI data and then differentiate their instruction to support striving and advanced readers. While language arts teachers oversee the assessment process, the data should be shared with all teachers so that they, too, can adjust their instruction to support all students. Content area literacy professional development classes were available this past year to serve this purpose. During the 2009-10 school year, workshops that focus upon differentiated instruction will be offered.

I can't sign off without mentioning one concern. The Lexile measurement represents a range in ability, and it can serve as a guide for teachers in choosing reading materials for whole or small group discussion. We should not insist that students choose only those books within that Lexile range for their independent reading. Such an insistence can remove much of the pleasure from reading. A good non-example presented to us involved a teacher who steered a talented reader away from the Harry Potter novels as being too far below that student's abilities. Later on that student remarked about the loss he felt in not being part of the phenomenon that accompanied that series.

Hopefully, this posting that took forever to complete will help answer that ever-present question: Why are we doing this?

Best wishes,


Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Teaching Tools - Accelerated Reader


The year of 2008 had many good moments, but on the school district front, many amazing events unfolded, and as a result life in the fast lane became even crazier! I hope you were too busy with the holidays to notice I did not update Link2Literacy in December! This will be a December/January posting, okay?

I decided to write about teaching tools over the next few weeks because I believe many educators hope such tools will enhance instruction and learning while simplifying their lives a little. Additionally, much time, energy, and money has gone into rolling out two tools that the language arts department predicts will support teachers and students in pursuit of improved literacy.

The tools I want to focus upon are part of the technology world, and for that reason they are both revered and feared. The first of these popular tools, however, has been part of the reading programs of many of JSD's schools: Accelerated Reader. The other two are Scholastic Reading Inventory (SRI), an assessment program; and MY Access!, an online writing program. It's also interesting how each can be a source of unifying or polarizing language arts communities. Therefore, I want to examine various aspects of these programs and how they can enhance and/or detract from educators' literacy goals.

Accelerated Reader has been long been a part of most elementary and middle schools in Jordan School District. I must admit that I was among the first to jump on the AR bandwagon back in the mid-nineties. I approached the administration and submitted grants to get the program into West Jordan Middle School, and then I pleaded with the PTA to help round up all kinds of prizes to motivate students to rack up their Accelerated Reader points. (My favorite was a basketball, autographed by all the Jazz players who were on their way to the NBA finals that year. It went to the top reader at our school, as determined by the number of earned AR points.)

Initially, I felt like I had finally found the answer to getting seventh graders to read more, but as time went on, I realized that good readers were reading more, but many struggling or reluctant readers were not. In the beginning, some of the reasons were connected to the limited number of tests in the our computer system, and students felt limited in what they could choose to read. No matter how many more tests our school purchased, however, students still complained that they disliked having to read an "AR" book.

I even wrote up a score of quizzes to placate their complaints. That meant that I had to read the proposed books before writing up the questions, and I'm a slow reader. Sometimes I even thought my quizzes were better than the program's, but the task significantly added to my workload. Next, I invited students to create quizzes for non-AR books they loved, and some tried it. However, they learned that it was more difficult to write questions than to answer them. In addition, the questions weren't particularly good, so I had to revise them in order to use them with confidence. (I did try to teach them how to write multiple choice questions, and that was darn tough!)

It was also a lot of work to obtain prizes. Unfortunately, I set the standard really high with the signed basketball and pizza lunches I purchased with grant money or through various connections. Soon, raising money and obtaining donations became a big part of my job description. Whew!

As my energy level dissipated, I reluctantly decided to incorporate AR points into students' grades, thinking that route might serve as motivation to keep them reading. But how was I to determine the number of AR points for all my students? Should 25 AR points per quarter be required with a weighted value equally 10% of their reading grade? Twenty-five points was nothing for some students but Mt. Everest for others - a mountain they could never climb. Once the 25 points were earned, many of those readers stopped reading! Others didn't even try, figuring 10% of a failing grade made little difference.

A few read books but could not pass the tests, and they became so discouraged. What did I do with my struggling readers I knew had read the books but could not pass the tests? Sometimes I directed them to easier books, but those weren't the titles that interested them. I read the tests to them and finally, I resorted to discussing the books with them. Wow! What a novel idea!

On top of that, my male students were more than happy to read during Sustained Silent Reading if they could read car or sports magazines. Wasn't that reading, they asked. Of course, it was, but I didn't have any AR quizzes for articles about Maseratis or Michael Jordan. So I started making exceptions, but that meant creating rubrics for the exceptions. Next I feared the exceptions would become the rule and that led me back to where I was before: book reports, projects, responses, etc.

Eventually, I had to ask myself about how this program would best fit into my classroom. Before I answered that question, I summarized what I learned.
  • First of all, there is no perfect tool out there. AR's questions are recall questions because the purpose of the program was and is to "see if the kids read the book."Claims that this program measures comprehension are questionable because of the lack of inferential questions. That means it's up to teachers and students to delve into the higher order thinking questions and answers about their reading - which isn't a bad thing!!!
  • Second, basketballs, pizzas, and grades are examples of extrinsic motivation. These types of incentives may bring about success in the short term; but if developing life-long readers is a teacher's goal, reading for the prize or the grade will not promote that.
  • Third, it may be a cliche, but "one size doesn't fit all." Kids not only need choice in what they read, but they also need choices in how they respond to that reading. Their talents and needs require that they have options. Furthermore, a variety of assessments are also needed for the varieties of students who sit in our classrooms' desks.
  • Fourth, research is mixed. I perused several sites and documents to determine whether or not research supports Accelerated Reader as a program that improves reading. The Renaissance Learning website lists independent research that indicates significant gains in reading achievement. But other reports question the lack of or the types of comparison groups used in the studies; the size of the effects for different grades and for the various reading skills; and which aspect of the AR program is responsible for the claimed gains.
As with all tools, teachers need to examine how they use them. I know that once upon a time, Accelerated Reader constituted the entire reading program in some classrooms, but the emphasis upon incorporating comprehension strategies into teaching reading has changed that. Once again: Assessing gains in reading necessitates a variety of assessment tools.

To develop life-long readers, teachers need to share their love of reading with their students and help them see the joy and the reasons for reading. This is not easy, but allowing students to have choice in what they read and how they respond to their reading are two more necessary elements. Getting books into the hands of students and providing time for them to read are two others. And of course, giving all students the tools they need to become strong readers, regardless of the text, is most critical.

Many teachers in our district work the AR program into reading classrooms that possesses these elements, and thus it becomes a useful tool for teachers and students. Remember my friends, this posting represents only one educator's experience and opinion. I would love to entertain other ideas and read of other's experiences. Please comment!

Thanks for reading,