In a classroom where student ownership of learning is expected, individual student portfolios are must haves. Portfolios create running records for students of what they learned or not as the school year progresses, and shapes students’ thinking and learning in ways that allows them to have control over their skills and abilities. Portfolios help them avoid error, revise, write and read purposefully, make connections, and analyze and solve problems based on the good learner habits they develop. With a portfolio, a student begins to think about how she learns which at the very least helps to avoid repetitive mistakes and, for others, accelerates their learning through a process that’s easy to integrate and manage in the classroom.
Every student begins the year with a manila file folder kept in a class drawer and, as the days and weeks go by, items from class are collected: quizzes, test, short responses, and practice or enrichment activities. On days when the opportunity presents itself, a student uses the portfolio to redo any item in it for a better grade, with an explanation provided for the teacher to review. For example, a poor quiz score is improved. The student researches the right answers, explains what was wrong, then how she will remember not to make the same mistakes again. Redoing the quiz has many benefits: it motivates the student to improve a class grade; allows for the independent relearning; eliminates the “downtime” that inevitably happens; is easy for the teacher to grade; ensures a better understanding of content; and puts the emphasis for learning back onto the student.
Reworking assignments provides the time for students to manage their learning, and deal with it tangibly. A test isn’t given then forgotten, in fact, it’s now a primary document in the on-going recording of the history of every student. Letting students relearn at their pace, either alone or with a peer, also provides for a differentiated classroom setting, and a change from the normal teacher-as-gatekeeper routine.
Amazingly, a simple file folder of each student’s work can have a major impact on the day-to-day environment of the classroom, and it requires little planning, preparation or effort, just opportunity and a classwork grade for effort.
A recent national news television vignette about volunteer tutors helping at-risk students learn to read was remarkable not only for the adults’ dedication, but for what became obvious from their work. A kind, older woman and eager child read a popular fairy tale aloud together. When the youngster retold part of the story, she responded well, demonstrating comprehension, pleasing her mentor. More interesting was the child’s use of idiomatic or non-academic language to respond. The little girl spoke in the informal way or “social talk” used in her home and community and I wondered: Is the challenge to learn to read and to assimilate into school more difficult for at-risk students simply because they are less likely to be aware of “school language”?
School language, now commonly referred to as academic language is the use – and understanding of -- words, phrases, grammar, mechanics and textbook terminology, used in the academic setting. Children who aren’t school ready – meaning they’ve had minimal exposure to words or texts they may encounter in primary classroom -- have a harder time learning to read and adopting the use of school language. As the child in the televised report responded informally, I was impressed with her ability to juggle social and academic language when processing a verbal response.
In this case, one can imagine the demanding back and forth mental processing required to make sense of unfamiliar text with informal language. As the sophistication of school talk eventually intensifies, so does one’s need to read and respond. School literacy, then, not only equates to one’s ability to read on grade level, but to think and write effectively using school language. Reading becomes more than associating letters with sounds and word pictures – it serves as the vehicle by which school language is acquired. As such, it should begin early and supported through one’s educational arc.
Home and school partnerships to encourage reading should start when babies first recognize sounds and words. Pediatricians, rightly, provide books in their waiting rooms and encourage parents to read and speak to their children to accelerate language acquisition. Child outreach family interventions, like “Providence Talks” a Blomberg Philanthropies, grant funded program, helps children as young as age one with language acquisition. Local screening should start sooner, before the age of three, to insure toddlers are engaged in language at home.
We can rethink, too, how schools remediate reading and provide long-term support. As of now, reading and special education teachers are solely responsible for intervention, but all teachers should be trained in the ways in which students process language. Professional development -- no matter what the grade level or subject -- should focus on how lessons ensure text understanding in the moment of the activity. Quick writes, either in a notebook or on a Post It note, are easy to do and allow teachers and students to share ideas and thinking at a crucial time.
Content language, as well, is a vital part of the classroom day-to-day talk and should be a focal point. For example, teachers can post word walls to highlight key words and phrases – along with their meanings – for students. In this way, students are exposed to essential terminology, which helps in the processing of content.
The televised example of a child learning to read highlighted the complex mental process needed to link sounds to words, words to sentences, and then transition from social to academic language. For some, reading requires intensive early intervention -- when necessary -- and a wrap-around approach once a child enters school to ensure success.
I hope her journey continues as well as it started.
Somehow, over the many years of public education, it was decided that children could best learn to write by first mastering the basics of spelling and grammar. Unfortunately, this mistaken assumption has been proven false by best practice, yet word searches, spelling lists and the teaching of the parts of speech, still dominate our Language Arts and English classrooms. The fixation on spelling and mechanics – or memory and error – hamstrings writing fluency, so even excellent students feel they, “can’t write.”
College graduates will admit this, even after pursuing some of the most demanding college coursework and degrees. Why? Because we don’t value fluency over basics, and we lose the opportunity to create writers. The best teachers in all content areas understand that informal writing helps them understand how students learn, and allows them to share their written ideas with their classmates. This process not only compliments writing, it builds content knowledge and understanding since writing makes meaning.
Another reason for the insistence on spelling and mechanics is that academic and business writing is “formal” so educators feel obligated to teach formality at the expense of fluency. Also, many feel creative writing and writing to learn waste too much class time, which is too bad since this is what’s required to build fluency.
What I’ve learned is spelling and mechanics are best taught through writing in which students are invested – for example, if a student wants to share a thought with a peer, she’s more willing to listen to – and remember -- how a properly placed comma or period will better convey her idea.
Fluency and confidence go hand-in-hand. Confident writers are willing to take on formal writing, so time initially spent “free” writing brings dividends. Students quickly improve spelling and mechanics once they feel confident in their abilities.
We need to build writers the way teachers of art and music do: they encourage, not discourage, students to try. They use hands-on experiences and don’t focus on error. I once overheard a conversation with a high school art teacher who asked why a student didn’t take her basic art class. When the student said he couldn’t draw, the art teacher told him not to worry. “No one knows how to draw at first,” she said. “It’s my job to help you.”
Helping our students develop fluency throughout the school day will make them better writers and learners, and it’s time to rethink how we do it.
Acclaimed novelist John Irving, whose Last Night in Twisted River opens with the beautifully written account of the drowning of a young man, said that he begins his novels with the last sentence then writes backwards. I was struck by how interesting an approach that is. His acknowledgment is rare in that authors generally have a focal point or idea that they write around, whereas Irving’s is a linear progression, even if it is from end to beginning. One wonders how he then creates the rest of the work: does he imagine scenes, characters, or link images? It’s obvious that he has a strong narrative voice that guides the process, too.
As writers, it’s important that we find a way to develop an idea or inspiration in a way that works naturally for us. Irving’s voice is strong because he’s figured out his story line and has confidence in the way he wants to tell it. I’ve found that when I’m not sure, my words lack energy and crispness, and my voice is stilted, insincere. My best remedy is to stop and image the person I’m writing about by asking, “Who is this person?” In this way, I try to visualize a real person in action. I look for how the person might dress, walk, talk and why it all comes together in this way. I’ve learned that the big mistake is to fight my inner eye and try to only select those traits that fit the story. Inspiration, like a bubble rising to the surface, bursts into my conscious thought; if I were to ignore the others to follow, then I’d do a disservice to the narrative voice inside me.
It has taken a while to trust the narrative or, in my case, the first person voice that likes to visit me, but I'm glad I do. Confidence in one's voice makes writing so much more fun, unpredictable and rewarding. Irving’s unusual backwards design reminds me that our voices -- and our trust in them -- are unique to writers who listen well.
Interestingly, the goals for creating readers (self-motivation, fluency and critical self-awareness) are the same for writers. Giving a writer time, encouragement and choice of topic is essential—no matter what level of instruction—to achieve the same goals. By using a writing workshop approach that includes the use of a writer’s notebook, the blank page anxiety that all writers face is eliminated.
A writer’s notebook is a combination of a daily journal and launching pad for ideas that helps writers build written work from the ideas and observations in them. As a journal, it records thoughts and feelings that when used daily, helps them transcribe thought to paper—a key component of developing fluency. When writing becomes as easy as talking, the student is much more receptive to writing instruction.
The process to build a writer’s notebook varies from elementary to secondary levels, but the similar idea is that it is the writer’s private place to explore feelings, thoughts and emotions as well as to develop thinking. Generally, a notebook split into two sections works best. One part is for private journal writing done daily, and the other is for class notes or assignments. Every day, without a prescribed topic, students write about themselves and their lives. These entries can be as mundane as what they did prior to coming to class or as passionate as venting about life. In either case, these are not read by the teacher, but a grade is given for exerting effort during the five minutes of class time (usually the beginning) to quietly write and no just sit and stare at the ceiling or out the window.
Later, a journal entry can relate to reading, a class assignment, or an observation that can lead to a short written piece. Taking students to observe the action in the school library where they are asked to note what they see, can then lead to a short essay retold from their notes.
What’s amazing is that creating both readers and writers is the same process and the beauty of it is in its simplicity.
Kafalas' fiction captures the wonder, sadness, irony and joy of life. His characters are unlikely heroes who find courage and inspiration in the lives of others. His writing belief is that less is more—his characters can tell their stories better than he can.