Cancel your participation plan and create speaking events instead

Here’s an embarrassing story that taught me a lesson:

Setting: my old classroom in northern NJ, sometime in the 2010s, 9:43 AM

As I rounded the back left corner of desks, a student elbowed another.  Feeling the nudge, she covered her notebook. On the page I caught a glimpse of the words “Mr. Dawson” and some tally marks. They traded nervous smiles.

Then it hit me. They were counting something about me. And if they were keeping a log in a notebook, it must be something I did A LOT.

“So, I’m pretty sure I know what that is.  If it’s something I say or I do over and over, I’d really like to know. I’d really like to try to work on it.”

They hesitated, but one girl let it out: “It’s every time you say ‘you know what I mean?'”

Just to emphasize, there were A LOT of tally marks.

My face felt flush, and I was self-conscious for the rest of class. But in retrospect, that was a great day. From then on, I knew the impact that my speaking ability has on my students. Because if they are counting my verbal tics in their notebook, they aren’t learning.

Since then, teaching students to speak with confidence has become important to me. In fact, I’ve probably spent a disproportionate amount of time on it. This spring, I received this email from a student, which showed me that it may be time well spent:

Speaking-Email

An email from a student who noticed an improvement in her speaking skills.

 

I’d like to highlight one phrase. Can you spot it?

This student did not thank me for “a magic trick for better speaking.” No, she thanked me for doing “so many class discussions.”  Like many parts of life, getting better at speaking requires putting in the practice.

This article is about a big shift to the way we have students practice speaking. Don’t panic, though. There are two simple steps at the bottom of the article. If you like the big ideas that follow, you can get started using those first steps. 

How does speaking in class usually happen? I think back to my time as a student and it varies.

Class participation vs. speaking events

Three types of speaking I experienced in college:

  • A class where students had to speak 2-3 times daily for an “A.” The teacher asked a question then called on every student with a hand up. Students did not have to interact with each other. They just had to speak.
  • A sociology class where a student accused another of doing charity work only to feel good about himself. The accused student responded to everyone’s surprise, “Yea, you might be right.”  This was after a long exchange between the students as the rest of the class listened.
  • The presentation of my final teaching portfolio to Mr. Mahoney and another gentleman. I gave a presentation on my student teaching experience, then fielded questions.

What can I learn from these three memories?

In the first example, speaking was a chore, a rule. It was a box to check.

In the second, the teacher created conditions where students could interact like that. They gave each other honest criticism. And they were willing to accept it. I don’t know remember those classmates’ names, but I remember the learning from that class.

In the third example, I had to battle my nerves to speak well. I had to plan, prepare, and practice. There were real audience members. I wanted to impress my teachers.

The first example is class participation taken to the extreme. The second two examples are speaking events.

To get clear on terms, consider the connotations of requirement vs. event:

A requirement is something we have to do. It’s bureaucratic. It’s boring. It’s a motion. It’s done. Next.

An event is something that we look forward to. We plan for it. We prepare for it. If we are in the audience, it excites us. If we are on stage, it excites and scares us. Afterwards, we’re satisfied. We talk about it. We review it. And we look forward to the next time it happens.

Some examples of speaking requirements turned into speaking events:

Forget typical debates or discussions. Use pop-up debates instead.

What is it: It’s a discussion protocol I learned about from Dave Stuart. It asks students to discuss a debatable question or topic. The catch? Students must “pop up” from their seats and stand before speaking to their classmates.

Why it works: The typical class discussion becomes a public speaking opportunity. When students pop-up, they take an active role in showing others that they have a point to make. They need to take the initiative to speak.  I recommend Dave’s Pop-Up Debate Starter Kit (I did not get paid to say that). I used the slides he includes in the Kit dozens of times last year.

How to start: Ask students to stand up before speaking instead of raising their hands. Some students will find this awkward. That’s ok. The shift that this makes on the mood of the discussion will surprise you.

Forget boring PowerPoints. Use Ignite talks instead.

What is it: This is a five-minute presentation with 20 auto-advance slides.  Slides feature images or phrases, not bullet points with a sea of text. Generally, speakers do not use notes or any other aids.

Why it works: The Ignite talk dramatically raises the stakes of presentations. This cannot be under-emphasized. There is no winging it. These presentations compel students to learn their material. They need to rehearse over and over again if they want to succeed.

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I gave one of these talks to my sophomores before they delivered theirs. It was one of the most challenging presentations I’ve given.

Disclaimer: the auto-advancing slides have ruined some student presentations. Students who underestimate the task stare at me for the last 45 seconds of the presentation. Emphasizing rehearsal is essential for this speaking event.

How to start: Ask students to give one-minute talks on a topic of their choice without using any notes or guides. Ask students to use images or phrases on their slideshows instead of bullet points.

Like with cold calling, students feel nervous before these speaking events. Raising the stakes puts positive pressure on students to deliver their best in class.  

We must provide clear guidance and instruction when assigning and planning these events. Then, we can trust that we’re helping students build speaking skills for life.

Have you used pop-up debates? Ignite talks? How do you turn speaking into an event? Share with fellow teachers in the comments.

No excuses: Build a culture of readers this year

Teaching students to read is a daunting task. Teaching them to become engaged, habitual readers? That’s overwhelming.

It’s much more manageable to break the task into steps. I outline five of the most common problems and solutions in Hacking Literacy.

And a major inspiration for that book is the work of Nancie Atwell. Her book The Reading Zone discusses the place where nothing exists except the story.

One of my favorite parts of the book comes early on when she lists student responses to a survey. The survey asked students about what helps them get into the reading zone.

The best part of this list is no item feels daunting or out of my control. Not one requires magical skills. That’s a feeling I get when hearing teachers discuss inspiring students to read.

Certain people have it and certain people don’t. I reject that.

But, teachers can often place blame on others. This student can’t read well? Bad home life. She is absent all the time? Admin must be letting her off the hook. He’s spending all his time reading war books? Too many violent video games.

Teaching (and life) is much easier, though, when we focus on the elements that we can control. So for each elements that Atwell’s students have listed, I’ve anticipated the objections. Then, I’ve responded to those objections.

Like most things I write, this is a reminder to myself more than anything else. I’d love to know which of these you struggle with most OR what parts of Atwell’s work you love.

Booktalks

I don’t have a copy of the popular books students want yet.
To be honest, this one doesn’t even require books. I’ve given book talks without having the book there by pulling it up on Amazon. If certain students are going to read on their Kindle anyway, this is OK.

I’ve run out of YA books that I’ve read and can book talk.
Two ideas here. Consider the books written for adults that adolescent readers can manage. I can think of students who would love to read a book by Jhumpa Lahiri, Mitch Albom, and Ta-Nehisi Coates. Or, ask your school librarian, another teacher, or students to do the book talks.

Classroom library

I don’t have the funds to fill my classroom library.
There are many places to get low-cost books. I’m going to address the objection through no-cost options, though.

Create a Donor’s Choose account and start a small project. I followed advice from my colleague Casey Fox and Dave Stuart Jr. and started a Donor’s Choose Project. Friends, family, and kind strangers funded three of my projects this year, all within days. The secret is to start small.

Additionally, put out a post on social media explaining your need for books. I did this several years ago, and people reach out to me today through Facebook Messenger about it. Try making a corny joke like I did. It might help.

facebook-classroom-library-post

In-class time to read

I don’t have time to let students “just read.”
Shh…if you say that again, I’ll be forced to alert the NerdCamp squad.

Free choice of books

I have a curriculum to follow.
Cut down on clutter in your curriculum using an 80/20 analysis. Then, give students 10 minutes to read at the beginning of every class. If you feel that you can’t break away from the curriculum. Try the Text Sets approach.

Recommendations from friends and the teacher

What if students become interested in reading a book that is too difficult or too easy for them?

Did you notice the first part of that sentence, “students become interested in reading a book”? Let’s stop there.

Comfort during reading time

I only have traditional desks and chairs.

This is a good point. There is lots of classroom eye candy on the Internet these days. It can create envy towards other classrooms. Some students like sitting on the floor, though. Some might want to stand and lean against a long row of shelves. Then, when someone is discarding a table or a comfy chair, make a small area with comfortable seating.

Writing to others about reading

I’m not sure how this works.
See Atwell’s In the Middle and Jim Mahoney’s Power and Portfolios for how to get students corresponding about books. I also referred to this article from Doug Fischer and Nancy Frey. Students communicate with each other through text today more than ever before. We can leverage that comfort with communicating to get kids talking about books.

Conversations with the teacher

I’m not great at conferring with students.
Here are three statements to get kids talking about their reading. How’s it going? Tell me more. And What makes you think that? Conferring is hard, especially with the many needs of the readers in our classrooms. But those three questions get kids to lead me to where I can best help them.

Watch this brief video

To read next lists

This is so easy to set up, I can’t think of an objection.
Have students carve out a page of their notebook and title it “To read next.” Every time the student encounters an interesting book, the student adds the book to the list. I like ot keep a physical to read next list at home so the next book is right there.

Reading every night for HW

My students won’t do it.
They might not. Some won’t. But it makes sense that this item is number 10 on the list. Because if numbers 1-9 are happening, then it’s much more likely that number 10 will happen, too.

Of course, ensuring that all ten of the items above are happening every day is daunting. But I’m not suggesting that we have to do that. Start with one, be consistent. Then, these elements of reading will have a kind of synergistic effect.

Which of the ten things above do you struggle with most? What parts of Atwell’s work do you love? Tell us in the comments.

cold calling

How teachers get cold calling right

Let’s begin a discussion about cold calling (on students, that is) with a couple of disclaimers:

One: Students with medical accommodations must be respected. If these accommodations include specifics about speaking, then ideas in this post may not apply. 

Two: Those situations aside, it’s healthy for students to feel on-the-spot. Healthy discomfort leads to growth. This post explores how to push students to participate even if they’re shy in September.

Now, let’s get to it, starting by defining the term: Cold calling is when a teacher asks students to participate, hand up or not. This is powerful, but it usually stirs negative emotions: fear, anxiety, embarrassment.

This connotation comes from practices, discussed below, that teachers use. These practices work against us.

Used with care, cold calling can:

  1. Build confidence: as I said, it can help to get shy kids talking
  2. Maintain accountability: through the year, students learn that everyone speaks
  3. Assess learning: the responses are a random set of student thoughts (not just outgoing kids)
  4. Improve conversations: the class hears all voices 
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Improve how you assess

If your students are anything like mine, some are shy but full of ideas. Others work slowly. Others get distracted. This is a lot to consider.

Two cold calling scenarios that hurt discussions

One: calling on students when they’re not paying attention. This is a way to assert dominance through embarrassment. The goal is to have students learn from this bad feeling and remain focused in the future.

That doesn’t happen. Cold calling as punishment breeds resentment. Plus, other students laugh. Now, the student further disrupts class for revenge. This erodes the classroom community.

Two: the initiate-respond-evaluate (I-R-E) discussion. You know the technique: Teacher asks the question, one kid answers, teacher says “wrong” or “right”…next question. This is brutal for everyone.

If the question has one right answer, students can read it or hear it from the teacher.

To recap, cold calling does more harm than good when it is a gotcha technique. And, it is a waste of time if there is only one answer.

So, what’s good about cold calling?

Quick reminder: With care, cold calling (1) builds confidence, (2) keeps students accountable, (3) assesses learning, and (4) improves conversations.

At this point, you may be concerned about how shy students will react to cold calling. If they don’t have an answer to your question, they’ll feel embarrassed. If they feel that their answer is not good enough, likewise.

You may worry about letting kids “off the hook” if they don’t want to speak. You don’t want to force kids. These are reasonable concerns.

To address those, make one change: Don’t use cold calling as a one-and-done event. Instead, use it as the last step in a process.  The process of asking good questions, giving time to think, and eventually hearing all student voices.

The foundation of effective cold calling is asking good questions

The description of a good question is probably up for debate. It might be better to describe the bad questions. Everyone has been asked one of those. If you’ve sat through a class, a meeting, or a sermon, you’ve heard a bad question from a  speaker. Some examples:

  1. A fact-based recall question with one right answer
  2. A yes or no question with one right answer
  3. A question about the reading, when the teacher knows that students ignored the reading homework
  4. When you ramble on, adding lots of extra, ya know, descriptive phrases and modifiers, and what you actually mean, might be a good question, but you have to circle back around and make sure you clarify your point, and then at the end you say, so what I’m getting at here is, when your question is too long

My recipe for a good question contains three ingredients: short, open-ended, interesting. You might say, what about Bloom’s Taxonomy? What about that PD session I sat through?

You’re probably right that I’m oversimplifying this. But those three terms are my parameters for good questions.  I also use the questions from the three-part lesson that works with any text.  My overall point here is that no number of great discussion techniques will help if the question asked is a bad one.

Now that the foundation is built with good questions, we can get students thinking, and cold call to hear what they have to say.

Move + cold call

This one is so simple. I love it, though. It goes like this:

Ask all students to move to show that they’ve made a choice. After everyone picks, students talk about their choice. This can be in pairs or small groups. The last step is the cold call. The teacher selects students at random. These students share their choice. Additionally, students share the ideas behind a classmate’s choice.

Here’s an example you might hear in my class:

From a scale of 1-5, 1 is low and 5 is high, how strong is Leonard Pitts Jr.’s argument in this piece? Put up 1-5 fingers. Remember, index finger for number 1. (This covers outstanding grudges.) Find at least one quote to prove your choice.

Please turn and talk with the people at your table. Tell them why you picked that number. Give an example from the editorial to support your choice. In three minute’s I’m going to ask three people at random to report on your conversation.

Students have two steps for preparing here. They make a choice and show me when they are ready by holding up a number of fingers. Then, they do an intellectual rehearsal in small groups before I cold call.

You can also have students move to sides or corners of the room. One side is agree and one side is disagree, for example.

Another awesome rapport-builder

An alternate version of this is the Take a Stand strategy.

Confer + cold call

Listen in or speak with students during a turn and talk session. When their idea is valuable for the whole class to hear, ask them if they’ll share it, like this:

That’s a great point, Kaitlynn. Do you mind sharing that with everyone in a moment?

If she says yes, then I’m meeting one of those objectives of cold calling discussed at the top of the post.

If Kaitlynn says she would not like to share, then I might say:

Ok, understandable. Do you mind if I explain the idea to your classmates?

So, Kaitlynn’s idea is still validated in front of the class. Hopefully that nudges her more towards saying “yes” to sharing during a future discussion and then participating on her own volition.

Quick write + cold call

After giving students time to process their thoughts with a 1-2 minute quick write, I’m comfortable with asking a few students to share a single line of their writing.

I’d most likely tell students the whole process when giving them the quick write instructions:

In a moment we’ll do a 90 second quick write. Remember that this is a first draft for everyone. After we finish writing, I’ll ask three people to read or paraphrase their writing.

There’s no “gotcha” here because students can read ideas they already have on their paper.

For a shy student who resists, I may suggest that a classmate reads their writing or I read it.  Then, I’ll still ask them to add any details we missed or clarify something.

More great writing practices

This, again, encourages the student to eventually participate without this prompting.

Notice that some writing lends itself to this type of sharing more than other kinds. I use my best judgement here when asking students to share personal writing as opposed to argumentative, for example.

Turn and talk + cold call with options

These are beginning to sound like clips from a football playbook. This is my most used and favorite cold call technique because it leads to organic discussion. (Organic discussion: when students continue the discussion with little/no facilitation.) Here’s how this would sound:

I want you to talk to the people at your table for two minutes about the way the character in your independent reading book relates to or differs from Holden Caulfield. Afterwards, I’ll ask three people to report back.

Then…

Ok,…Alex, Sarah, and Shreya. Share what you said or what you heard a classmate say.

This is my favorite because students can share the things they found most interesting in their conversation. Shreya says:

Well, I heard Andrew explain that Holden seems kind of stuck because he doesn’t do anything about his pain but the character in Andrew’s book is starting to act out in school because of it.

Then I follow up and ask Andrew to fill us in on the details.

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Then, the process continues with Alex and Sarah commenting, too.

Because students can choose to share the ideas of their classmates, those classmates are more likely to enter the conversation. If the student needs to clarify or expand upon what the original speaker said, all the better.

Summing up

  1. “Gotcha” cold call
  2. I-R-E cold call
  3. Move then cold call
  4. Confer + cold call
  5. Quick write + cold call
  6. Turn and talk + cold call with options

These techniques give students an intellectual rehearsal before they speak in front of the class. Instead of shaming or boring students, we can lead students toward speaking with confidence.

Are you cold calling on students? Why or why not?

Here are some comments from Twitter (all made from public profiles to my public profile) to get this conversation started:

twitter-cold-call-conversationtwitter-cold-call-2

Please add your thoughts in comments below, or on our Facebook page, or on the #HackLearning Twitter stream.

read alouds

Better Read Alouds (with a Video Example)

Read alouds happen in my class nearly everyday. I teach sophomores, some of whom have twelfth grade or college reading levels. Still, read alouds, almost every day. 

Why? Well, language is meant to be heard. Fluent reading comes from hearing fluent readers. Clear writing comes from hearing clear writers. 

In that way, the read aloud is a high value literacy experience. Plus, it engages kids, while requiring very few supplies or special circumstances. As literacy teachers, the read aloud is there for us, every day, a tool we can use in our class. But, it takes work.

Two steps towards improving read alouds: Practice the skill of reading aloud well to students. Create the circumstances that cause the read aloud to help us meet instructional goals. Here are some reminders to myself, followed by a video of me reading aloud to my students.

How to make the most of read alouds

Planning  

We have to know the section of the text that we want to read. Don’t open the book to the chapter that your class is reading and read “for a little while.” I’ve done that, and I drag it on too long. Even if it’s a great book, I select clear start and end point.

As you’ll see in my example below, identifying a “scene” is one option. The opening or closing of a chapter is another option. Or, a conversation between two characters. Students won’t know that more follows if you use your voice to make it feel final.

The read aloud should be the perfect length. Yes, that’s all I’ll say about that. A read aloud that is too short doesn’t have time to build momentum and get students sucked into the narrative. A read aloud that is too long has students wondering when the teacher will end, and unless the story and the reader are truly compelling, it is hard to hold students’ interest.

That may just be my experience. I know that some books when read aloud can keep students attention for a long time.

Purpose

Are you reading aloud because you want students to read the book independently? Because you want students to learn specific information? Because you want to model a specific type of reading (reading a play, perhaps). Or because the excerpt will lead the class into a learning activity–more reading, writing, or scaffolded reading questions. That’s what I show in the example below.

Passion

This is a vague word that, in this case, means we should try our best when reading aloud. Change voices for different parts, characters, narrators, emotions, etc. It doesn’t have to be drastic. But it’s interesting if it is. My teacher Dr. Meixner was great at doing read alouds, and she was teaching 21 and 22-year-old students. I remember hearing her read aloud from Tangerine by Edward Bloor in our reading methods class. Similarly, my teacher Mr. Mahoney had a class that included many exhausted student teachers, yet he still captivated the class with his read alouds. So the passion that we put into read alouds matters a lot. It sticks in the memories of our students.

Plus, this makes it fun. Even when I’m a tired teacher, it’s energizing to do a read aloud and surprise myself with my animation, Students respond to this.

Post

The post-read aloud task should send students back into the text to find something that they noticed. After hearing the words read aloud, students will have an appreciation for the language that they might not get from silent reading. A simple question like “What sentence stands out to you?” works well.

Perhaps the last piece to improving our read alouds, as with any skill, is feedback. In this case, feedback comes in the form of self-reflection (and any comments on this blog post). And let’s be clear, I’m not immune to that unique feeling that comes from watching and listening to myself (Fear? Nausea?). But, I know that it’s essential for getting better. Again, at any area of life.

[Video: Part 1]

[Video: Part 2]

Reflection and notes:

[Side note: the lesson students are working on here is inspired by the 10 Beautiful Sentences project by Matt Morone. Click here to read about it.]

0:15 – 0:20 I tell the class that we will read a passage from The Catcher in the Rye where we gain insight into the meaning of the title. Andrew raises his hand.

“Andrew?”

“I don’t know…I just raised my hand,” he says. Kids are great.

0:30 – 2:00 First, I ramble a bit about the title. Then, I introduce the purpose of our reading, reminding students of their current project. This is finding and identifying powerful sentences in their reading.  I tell students that there is a powerful sentence that I’ve identified in the following excerpt. Next, I provide some context about the scene. 

2:20 – 2:24 “Just look for any sentences that stands out to you as powerful.” This was the task that I set for students. It was too vague. Better would have been to tell students to leave their finger on one sentence that they notice, or even make a light pencil mark next to one sentence. “Look” is too vague of a verb.

2:30 – 3:05 I’m doing my best to differentiate between the two voices, Phoebe and Holden. I do a decent Phoebe, making my voice higher and showing her frustration. Holden sounds too similar, though. Needs more apathy.

*This video was record with my cell phone and a Swivl. At the 3 minute mark, I got a call from an unrecognized number and had to block the call and press record again. Did I mention this was happening in a real classroom on a typical school day?*

Part 2:

0:00 – 0:55 The passage continues, a bit fast. Overall, I’m trying to convey the reflection that Holden is experiencing in this scene.  

0:56 – 1:30 I give a the follow-up task to students:

“Point to a sentence that sticks out to you and explain to the person next to you why you chose that sentence. Literally point to one sentence, read it to the person next to you, and tell them why you picked the sentence. Person closest to the back of the room can share first.”

Here is some redemption for those vague directions in part 1. This is a simple, manageable task that gets kids talking about the language of the passage. That was the purpose of this read aloud.

We finished by hearing three examples from students around the room. They identified the sentence that I had in mind as well as a few others.

So, with intention and practice, the read aloud is another tool we can use to build student literacy skills. Done well, it also helps to build a culture of readers.

What is your favorite text to read aloud? Tell us in the comments.

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