Professional Development

PD Session for Teachers: Helping Students Generate Questions for Inquiry and Deeper Thinking

Our school district returned on January 2 to begin a new semester, and our first day back was one with a focus on professional development.  At my school, four sessions were offered for our faculty that touched on each area of our school improvement plan.  My principal asked me to lead a session on helping students formulate and dwell in questions to address our goal of nurturing an academically challenging environment.  It was a fun day getting to lead and learn with my fellow 6th, 7th, 8th, and Connections teachers in my building.    Here is an overview of the 45 minute session I presented four times (one for each grade level/area):

  1.  Learning Activity #1: Question Flood with a “Write-Around” Activity (with chart/tablet paper and markers) Using HOTS questions with a variety of “texts” across multiple subject areas; teachers worked with their table groups to read their text and collaboratively generate HOTS questions using the HOTS question stems.  We also explored how to incorporate HOTS with other mediums, including sticky notes and chart paper or even your dry erase board in your room.
  2. Activity 2: Three Big Questions (Probst and Beers) with a variety of texts across subject areas; will also share how we used these in our “birds of feather” interest reading clubs.  Teachers had an opportunity to practice this with the text set at their table.
  3. Strategy 3: Developing Deeper Research Questions/Questions for More Inquiry with Question Lenses :  I shared how you can use Ann Marlow Riedling’s questions to help students individually or collaboratively use questions lenses to “explode” and explore a topic or text.
    Real world examples from my own practice include:A.  Example 1:  Read more here and here.
    B.  Example 2:  Read more here ; here is a completed student example from Grade 7.

The resource page I shared with teachers is available in this Google Document; the slideshow is embedded in the Google Document as well.  I have been thrilled and humbled by the positive feedback and number of teachers from all subject areas who have already implemented these strategies in less than a week!

Here are some scenes from the workshop:

Summer Reading: Cultivating Seed Ideas for Growth in 2017-18

Having the opportunity to teach a middle school course dedicated to writing for 6th, 7th, and 8th grader learners in 2016-17 was a roller-coaster of experiences and emotions, but more importantly, it was also a time of questioning and growth for me as a teacher and a learner.   There was a good deal of trial and error as I tried out new strategies and approaches, but there were also important insights and questions that came from this experimentation.

As I got to know my students better and increased the amount of feedback I was giving on a daily basis both face to face with 1:1 writing conferences and through Google Docs, I grew increasingly frustrated with the limitations of “grades” and uneasy with how they represented the growth in student writing.  At the same time, I was amazed to see how much better I knew my kids as individual and their strengths and weaknesses as writers through this regular daily conferencing I was doing.  I felt like this frequent and regular feedback was making a difference, but I also wondered how I could step it up and do it better.

Through the year, I read several posts by both Catlin Tucker and Rebekah O’Dell about going gradeless ; I also read works by Carl Anderson to improve my ability to engage in effective and meaningful writing conferences.    By the end of the year, I was uncomfortable and disturbed by the disconnect I saw and felt between grades and authentic assessment.  I decided I want to dive more deeply into these topics to help me grow as a teacher in 2017-18:

  1.  How are grades different from assessment?  What does it mean to engage in effective assessment, and how do we engage students more effectively and authentically through assessment?  How can we use assessment to capture growth, and how do we record/showcase/archive/utilize that evidence?  How can I do a better job of giving feedback in real-time and get to everyone on a regular basis each day/week?
  2.  What does a gradeless classroom look like?  How do you go about this approach in a way that impacts student learning for the better and is fair?
  3. How do I give more meaningful and strategic feedback to my writers?  How can I help them use this feedback, and how do I help them to conference with themselves so that they are setting goals and not dependent on me to know how a particular piece of writing is coming along?
  4. How do I design my writing units more effectively?  How do I utilize writer’s notebooks better than I did last year, and what are ways I can facilitate writing workshop and independent reading more effectively?
  5. How do I bring this feedback-oriented, workshop approach to reading and writing to a high school classroom, especially in upper level courses where a “canon” approach is the norm?  How do I push those pedagogical boundaries and show others how students are clearly demonstrating growth and how students are mastering district standards?  How do we capture evidence of student learning and how can students take ownership of showing what they’ve learned?

Through my summer reading, I’ve come to see how interrelated all these questions are to my instructional practices and design drivers for learning.  I set forth an ambitious summer reading plan, and though I didn’t get through even half of what I planned, the texts I’ve read (both books and blog posts) have really shifted my thinking and help me see a glimpse of the possibilities.

What I Read

Right now I have a feeling of panic because I didn’t even get through a quarter of the books I wanted to read or re-read (and the total amount was unrealistic, I know, but still!).  However, what I read was impactful; these reads (in the order I read them) included:

I found all of the these texts to be enlightening on a philosophical level as well as a day to day “how do I do it?” level. Some of these books were not even on my radar at the end of May because nearly every book led me to a title that was not on my list!  I can see now how the ideas in one book informed my reading of the others in the very best way and helped create a serendipitous but coherent reading experience that came together around key ideas and principles.   I wished that I had every single one of these books last summer because I can see now what a difference it could have made for my students had the ideas, mindset, and strategies been in my head this time last year.  Though all reads were great and recommended to you, I have placed an asterisk by the reads that were most influential for me and whose ideas will be most visible in how I hope to approach teaching and learning during 2017-18.  I’ll share that my three books I read in Kindle format were so meaningful to me that I also bought print copies as well.  In addition, I enjoyed the Mark Overmeyer book so much I purchased his other two texts to read.  It seems one author and reading leads to more; my latest find is Shift This thanks to Patty McGee via Twitter just yesterday.

I still need to somehow gather and organize my notes from each book (again, sense the panic that I am out of time)  in a way that will help me keep them handy as a compass as I begin to design learning experiences in earnest a week from today when preplanning begins.  I could probably write a blog post on each book (and if I had been more motivated this summer, I should have), but the big takeaway for me is that both I and my students will dwell in a growth mindset fueled by strategic and meaningful feedback that will inform instruction, formative assessment, goal-setting, and self-assessment.  While I don’t think I can go “gradeless” as a teacher new to a school and district this year, I CAN emphasize feedback and let that drive student learning so that we are focused on learning and not grades.  I know I will need to be very intentional with this goal so that I don’t get bogged down in the weeds that can cause me to lose sight of this endeavor.

In addition to these books, I read a ton of articles and blog posts.  I have collected these readings on my hard drive, Google Drive, and Pinterest; in addition, I have printed the ones that have the most immediate application and am working on organizing a notebook for handy/quick reference as I need them.  I’m working on adding my pretty tabs this week so that it will be easier to find a section of each notebook; you can see an example of the notebook in progress below and my efforts to organize them in Google Drive below as well.  Though it is not complete (I still have articles to upload and organizing left to do), you can view my library in progress of helpful articles.

Books I Didn’t Get Around To Reading But Still Want to Read in 2017-18

Books I Wanted to Reread This Summer But Didn’t Get To (But Still Hope To!)

Final Thoughts:  Fear, Vulnerability, Excitement and Growth, Oh My!

Right now my head is exploding with ideas as the readings have really stretched my thinking and will impact how I approach teaching English Language Arts to my 11th and 12th grade readers and writers come August.  I really want to go deep and stay in an inquiry stance on my practices as a literacy teacher this year.  The prospect of these shifts is slightly overwhelming and even a little scary but mostly incredibly energizing and exciting! In Feedback That Moves Writers Forward: How to Escape Correcting Mode to Transform Student Writing, Patty McGee says:

Perhaps the toughest part of supporting writers comes when it seems like they are just not doing anything at all. There is, I believe, a common thread among all “stuck” students: Writing requires vulnerability, and stuck writers let their fear stop them. In other words, there is a level of shame associated with taking imperfect action in writing.

McGee frequently references Brene Brown and the concept of vulnerability.  I first heard of this TED Talk and Brown through Chattahoochee High Assistant Principal Camille Christopher during 2015-16, but it didn’t really resonate until I read about vulnerability in the context of teaching writing AND being a writer.  This dimension of helping student writers is one I will keep front and center as I work with my new students this year.  I also want to embrace vulnerability as a teacher because I think teaching requires vulnerability and fear of failing–on our evaluations, with our students and their high stakes tests, or with the way our colleagues see us–often stops us as teachers from making courageous and brave shifts in our practices.

I hope to pull together my ideas better in the next two weeks because the beginning of the year is upon us!  In addition to small posts throughout the year, I hope to do some sort of monthly updates about what is going well and where I’m struggling; this blogging goal is inspired by Kristy Louden, whose blog I discovered this summer and enjoy reading.

In addition to Kristy, I know I have other colleagues out there in my PLN like ELA teacher Stephanie Hampton who have similar aspirations and hopes to make some significant shifts to foster better and deeper learning experiences for our students in our ELA classrooms.  It is comforting to know you are not on this journey alone, and I am thankful for so many ELA thought leaders and practitioners in the trenches who so generously share their wonderings, their strategies, and their experiences so that we all grow and become better.

One final note–if you are interested in gradeless classrooms, you may want to join Teachers Going Gradeless (blog here and Twitter handle here)  for a Twitter chat this Sunday evening, July 30 from 9PM–10PM EST; Patty McGee will be one of the moderators!:


Getting Our Joy On: Summer PD with Hall County Teachers

Last week I had the pleasure and honor of co-teaching a professional development course for Hall County teachers, Teaching Reading in the Content Areas, with my Chestatee Academy principal Jennifer Kogod.  We both share a passion for all things literacy, so when she asked me to teach the course with her earlier this spring, I immediately said yes!

Not only did our participants receive a stipend for the course from the district, but they also received five professional books!  Our course texts included:

  • Beers, G. Kylene, and Robert E. Probst. Disrupting Thinking: Why How We Read Matters. New York, NY, Scholastic Inc., 2017.
  • Daniels, Harvey, and Nancy Steineke. Texts and Lessons for Content-Area Reading. Portsmouth, NH, Heinemann, 2011.
  • Daniels, Harvey. Subjects Matter: Exceeding Standards through Powerful Content-Area Reading. Portsmouth, NH, Heinemann, 2014.
  • Tovani, Cris. Do I Really Have to Teach Reading?: Content Comprehension, Grades 6-12. Portland, Me., Stenhouse Publishers, 2004.
  • Wilhelm, Jeffrey D., and Michael W. Smith. Diving Deep into Nonfiction: Transferable Tools for Reading Any Nonfiction Text, Grades 6-12. Thousand Oaks, CA, Corwin Literacy, 2017.

After spending two days together thinking, planning, brainstorming, and having a tremendous amount of fun in the process, Mrs. Kogod and I were ready for our two-day class.    It was important to both of us to

  • Model the strategies we planned to focus on in our course (keep “sit and get” to a minimum”
  • Give our teachers 8-10 concrete “doable” strategies they could easily take back to the classroom in August and implement right away.

We also thought about the arrangement of room and how to organize the learning space for maximum engagement as well as comfort.  Kathy Clifton, our school administrative assistant and goddess of all things “make it happen” assisted us and made sure we had all the supplies we needed.

Day 1

After introductions and sharing our learning targets as well as our course essential question, we jumped into our first activity:  a perspective walk.    We felt this learning structure would not only be a great way to unpack some of the ideas that content area teachers would want to share about teaching reading, but it would also be a medium for community building, something we felt was essential to establishing an environment of trust and sharing.   Because we had a small group of secondary teachers (six), I made just a slight tweak or two to the structure to accommodate our small group, but this is how we facilitated the activity:

1.  Our teachers worked with a partner so that we had three groups of pairs.
2. We introduced these three questions and give groups chart paper to brainstorm their responses.

*How are reading skills and opportunities to use informational text currently used within your subject area?
*What do you see as the benefits of students reading and using informational text in your class?
*What are challenges for content area teachers trying to integrate reading and writing literacies into their content areas?

3. Next, we Mrs. Kogod and I gave groups three sticky notes and asked them to pull out the most salient/important response from their list; we asked them to distill the idea to its essence and to write each “essential” big idea that stood out to them as a group (consensus!) on a medium-sized sticky note.

4. We then did large group share out for each round of questions; as groups shared out, we collected their responses on their sticky notes and grouped “like” answers on the dry erase board.

5. Next, Mrs. Kogod and I placed the “like” responses in the different sections of our perspective walk “pie” while the group took a short break.  We then  gathered the entire group and stood in a large circle around the perspective walk pie.   Because we had such a small group, we modified the activity questions to do two rounds (focusing on questions 1 and 3) instead of all three questions.  For each question, participants walked around the circle and  stepped inside the slice with the response or set of responses from earlier that resonated most strongly with them.

6.  Groups discussed answers among themselves and then we did a large group share out for each question.

For our last round, we first considered the question, “How do we address or tackle that challenge?”  and we worked in pairs to brainstorm solutions to the challenges identified by  participants.  We then concluded with a large group discussion.  This perspective walk gave our teachers time and opportunity to talk about these ideas and share their thinking in a space that was respected and honored, something that is especially important when you are asking teachers to talk about teaching something out of their comfort zone or area of expertise.

Next, we introduced the concept of interactive notebooks and shared ways they might use them with students in their respective content area classes. We also provided everyone a spiral notebook so that they could create an interactive notebook for our course and use it for our learning activities!  Our last activity before lunch was a discussion of the research supporting best practices for reading instruction and key ways content area teachers could support students’ growth as readers.   Our best practices and research-based findings came primarily from our class texts from Tovani, Beers and Probst, and Daniels and Steineke.

After lunch, we did a write-around text on text, one of my favorite learning structure I learned in December 2013 from Harvey Daniels.   After introducing the activity, examples, and the learning structure protocols, we wrote around articles  related to the decline of honeybees.

We then pulled it together with a See, Think, Wonder.

Mrs. Kogod and I were absolutely blown away by the discussions and thinking we heard from Suzanne, Jay, Rachel, Yamelis, Hope, and Marlon as they worked through their See/Think/Wonder activity in pairs.  We then did a large group share out of our See/Think/Wonder, and the richness of the discussions and the connections the teachers made in their responses were especially impressive.

After the activity, we discussed the benefits for students as readers, writers, and inquirers; we also talked about modifications and different variations on the learning structure.  This activity was a HUGE hit with the teachers—after we finished, everyone immediately began thinking aloud about ways they would use this learning structure in our classroom.  One of our participants, my fellow teacher Suzanne Ward, piloted the structure last fall and spring in her Healthcare Science classes.

This activity was a springboard to introducing principles of text sets and ways to effectively develop a broad range of texts, including multimedia, for student learning.  We also talked about resources for finding interesting and accessible texts for students.  We drew heavily on Tovani’s discussion about text sets  as well as the work of Smokey Daniels and Nancy Steineke.   The “homework” for the evening was to begin thinking about the ways we as content area teachers might integrate the use of text sets into our classroom and a unit of study that would be a good starting point.   The day flew by, and we all left feeling energized and excited about the next day!

Day 2

We began the second day with a ticket in the door; we asked our teachers to consider this question:  “What idea or question are you pondering as we continue our exploration of strategies today?”  After giving everyone a few minutes to compose their thoughts, we did a large group share out.  After a rich discussion, we then spent about 45 minutes working on our text sets.  We were delighted to discover every teacher had already started gathering resources the previous evening, and this working time was wonderful for answering individual questions as well as for teachers to work together and help each other.

We then jumped back into our strategy work by introducing the concept of a reading frenzy to our teachers.  I shared some photos of some reading frenzy work I had done in collaboration with teachers Sean O’Connor and Amy Balogh before turning our teachers loose for the reading frenzy, a strategy I learned from Nancy Steineke in the January 2016 Inquiry Institute I attended in Santa Fe, New Mexico.  We also introduced a simple method of annotating/coding text that I learned in the same workshop.  Once the teachers had their handout with the text codes and six articles around an overarching topic, we asked them to read and annotate each article.  Once everyone had plenty of time to read and mark up their texts with the codes, we asked them to rank their articles in order of most interesting/favorite to least.  Because of time limitations, we did not go through the entire process of actually picking topics and developing birds of feather inquiry circles with a four corners approach, but I talked them through how they could use this method to launch a unit of inquiry or to jigsaw material with students for a unit of content area study.  As a class, we then talked about possible modifications and other ways teachers might use and adapt reading frenzies in their classrooms.  Again, everyone was very enthusiastic about this strategy!  I was so excited about what the teachers were doing and thinking that I honestly forgot to take any photos (out of character for me) and sadly didn’t capture any of our other cool learning activities until the end of the day.

Mrs. Kogod then facilitated our BHH learning structure:  Book, Head, and Heart. We borrowed this idea from the Beers and Probst text as well as the templates for classroom anchor charts and foldables you can use with students.   After showing our teachers how to cut and manipulate the foldable, she had teachers glue it in their interactive notebooks where they could use it as part of their hands-on immersion with BHH.   We selected a local news article about automated or driverless cars because we wanted teachers to see how they could use BHH to help students connect and engage with informational text.   The large group discussion that was ignited by this simple but powerful strategy was rich in ideas and was effective in giving everyone an entry point into the conversation.

Again, this strategy was a major hit with the teachers, and it warmed OUR hearts to hear them talking about how they might use it in their classrooms this fall!

After lunch, Mrs. Kogod introduced principles of effective vocabulary instruction in the content areas with this video; the discussion of tiered vocabulary as well as “brick” and “mortar” words really resonated with everyone.  Mrs. Kogod then showed us some simple but powerful vocabulary activities and strategies teachers could use for direct instruction, guided practice, and formative assessment; she pulled two activities, Vocabulary Knowledge Rating and Association Triangles, from a text not on our list but one that should be in every professional library:  Tools for Thoughtful Assessment: Classroom-Ready Techniques for Improving Teaching and Learning by Harvey Silver.    The energy level in the room quickly went up when Mrs. Kogod instructed our teachers to form pairs as we prepared to play Vocabulary Password.  Students sat back to back; the student facing the board that was projecting the vocabulary term had to describe the meaning of the word to the partner behind him/her not facing the board; the person facing the board and doing the describing could not use any language that used part of the vocabulary word.   Once the partner got it right, the partner facing the board jumped up , said his/her name, and when recognized, the other partner shared the answer.  Mrs. Kogod used a fun PowerPoint to help facilitate the activity (complete with a buzzer sound!).  I wish a million times over now I had videoed this activity because the level of competition went through the roof!  I think this activity could be popular with ANY age group, not just middle and high school students.    I can say this activity was a group favorite—the laughter and smiles that came from the competition added to our joy and engagement!

After a short break, Mrs. Kogod then led us in a quotation mingle activity.  We used the Harvey “Smokey” Daniels and Nancy Steineke though Kylene Beers also has a version called “Tea Party.”   Basically, you take a text and take out roughly eight interesting sentences; you can copy these onto strips.  Daniels and Steineke recommend you make four copies of each sentence or “strip” so that you have enough for an average class size of 32 though you can always adjust for your classes.   In summary, learners mingle in pairs and discuss their quotes as they try to piece together what they mystery article might be about. In the next round, students mingle in larger small groups four and try to again piece together their knowledge they are gleaning from the quotes.    You then call time and ask students to freeze in place in their small groups.  They are to come up with a headline for the mystery article based on their quotes.  Once groups share out the proposed headlines, they then get to read the mystery article and mark it up with the text codes.  You can then talk about the article as a class as well as how well the predictions and proposed article titles played out based on the evidence provided.  This strategy was yet another popular one with our teachers!

Our final hands-on activity of the day was our Reading Visuals and Images activity, one that I’ve used from Daniels as well as the Visual Thinking Strategies protocols.  I blended a combo of the two for our activity as I asked our students, the teachers, to draw a grid with four squares on the right side of the next empty page in their interactive notebook.  I first projected onto the board a photo I got from the New York Times “What’s Going On in This Picture” activity bank; I showed the teachers a photo in its entirety for roughly 1-2 minutes.   I then showed the photo in quadrants; for the upper left hand quadrant, the first one we focused on, teachers jotted down a range of noticings based on these prompts:

We then repeated the process for each quadrant, moving in a clockwise direction.

Once we had worked through all four quadrants, we then did a Turn and Talk as worked in pairs to record our similarities and differences in our noticings on the left side of our notebook.

We then did a large group share of these similarities and differences.  Finally, we did a final Turn and Talk in pairs again and recorded our responses to these three questions:

  • What are the three most important details you and your partner noticed?
  • What conclusions about the image can you draw from these details?
  • If you were to give this image a title, what would it be?  Why?

We then did one final group share out and engaged in another rich discussion. We ended by talking about possible variations, modifications, and other forms of visuals that could be used to help students learn how to read images and graphics.  This activity was yet another popular learning structure that the teachers loved.

We concluded with a discussion about Tableaux since I had mentioned it earlier as a performance assessment that students could do as a result of an inquiry project sparked by the reading frenzy.  This is another wonderful strategy i learned from Nancy Steineke; you can learn more about it in her wonderful book Assessment Live.  We had hoped to have time to let our teachers read an article, develop a tableaux , and perform it, but we simply ran out of time.  I can attest from personal experience, though, that this is a medium for learning and assessment students LOVE and that gets them engaged with texts and each other!

Final Reflections

I think joy is the word that comes to mind when I think about this learning experience that we all shared together.  Though our class was small, all six teachers came with an incredible reservoir of enthusiasm and ready to learn as well as share.  Their positive energy and willingness to really invest themselves in the two days was inspiring and generated so much excitement among all of us.

We canvassed a good deal of territory over two short days, yet Mrs. Kogod and I are so proud that we did it in a way where we went deep and were strategic with the content we introduced and immersed ourselves in with our teachers. On a personal note, I have to say it was an honor and privilege to co-teach with Mrs. Kogod—her passion for literacy and desire to explore strategies with real impact are contagious.    Last week was one of the best weeks of my professional career, and I am thankful I had the opportunity to be part of such a rich learning experience with Mrs. Kogod and my fellow Hall County teachers.  I sincerely hope we have the chance to co-teach a class again in the future.

What makes summer or any PD experience meaningful for you?