Tag Archives: Literacy

Visual Thinking

I’m kind of a New York Times (NYT) junkie. A few years ago, we bought a subscription to the Sunday Times at home, which additionally provided us unlimited digital access. I signed up for news alerts and a few news digests, like “Education” and “Tests and Assessments,” so I’m sent short abstracts of articles that pertain to those categories.

It was in one of these digests, recently, that I encountered the headline: “40 Intriguing Photos to Make Students Think.” Not the catchiest of titles, but the photo accompanying it piqued my interest:screen-shot-2016-10-04-at-9-27-02-pmSo, I clicked. That’s where I was reminded of another great service The Times offers: The Learning Network. In essence, they deliver education resources like lesson plans, news quizzes and the like all based on NYT articles, photos, graphics and more. Better yet, you can access the Network’s many features without a digital subscription.

Back to what brought me to The Learning Network in the first place: the above picture. It’s part of a weekly feature called, “What’s Going On in This Picture?” Readers are asked three standard questions about a visual text:

  • What’s going on in this picture?
  • What do you see that makes you say that?
  • What more can you find?

Then, they are encouraged to acutely observe (a.k.a. closely read) the image, find evidence, and post and respond to comments of others online. Partners, Visual Thinking Strategies facilitate the online discussion Mondays between 9a – 2p Eastern Time (6a-11a Pacific). On Thursday afternoons, Learning Network writers reveal a caption and backstory below the photo on the site.  Check out this week’s photo below (week of October 17):


As for classroom applications, I immediately thought of a warm-up. Whether you participate live through the Learning Network or want to spark an in-class dialog, there are images that relate to nearly any subject are. Five minutes at the beginning of class is plenty to take in the photo and respond, turn to a partner and compare perceptions. Cogs are turning, awareness is heightened and students are engaged in analysis–great practice for getting into the day’s content. And, what a great way to build a community of inquiry, teacher included!

In 21st Century literacy, when we hear or say text, we need to be mindful of the myriad forms that word may conjure. Our students are consuming these many texts in record numbers, daily. Teaching the tools to become informed about what they consume doesn’t get more real.



Tales from an SBA Field Test Site

Gresham-Barlow’s Dexter McCarty Middle School had all 8th grade students participate in both the Smarter Balanced Assessment Field Test for ELA and for Math. Their testing window closed at the end of last week. One teacher invited me in to discuss with two classes of students their perceptions of the SBA. Mind you, neither students nor schools will receive scores for their efforts. The Field Test is a “test of the test” to gauge item alignment, rigor, technological compatibility and the like.

As you might suspect, students had a lot to say. Here are the take-aways:

  • Students found it difficult to maintain focus on long reading passages and became distracted and fatigued.
  • Students felt underprepared and felt like they needed to develop skills in:
  •      informational text
  •      proficient typing
  •      fluid use of testing tools
  •      listening
  •      visual literacy
  •      vocabulary
  •      on-demand writing
  • Students were frustrated with glitches in technology (e.g., load-time to play audio clips, ability to hear audio clips consistently, headphone capabilities)

student look

  • Students were numbed by the tediousness of the assessment (day-after-day)
  • Students were given 45 minutes daily, but felt like longer blocks of time for testing might be helpful.
  • Some students liked the variety of the test format (e.g., selected response, constructed response)

Students also encountered some frustrations on the assessment over which neither they (nor we) will have control, such as:

  • Performance Tasks (both ELA & Math) seemed to be written for older (high school) students.
  • Electronic note pad issues (universal accommodation): notes on the Performance Task were deleted after 20 minutes of idleness; the notepad popped up in the middle of the screen and was stationary; students had to navigate away from the notepad when typing their essay.
  • Could not copy/paste from the notes to the text box.
  • Could not rewind or fast forward the audio to listen to specific parts.

Last but not least, I asked the students to choose one word from a list of five that would describe their overall SBA Field Test experience. The words they could choose from included: Confident, Relaxed, OK, Frustrated, and Stressed.

On the ELA side, 59 students responded:

  • Zero students reported feeling Confident
  • 10% of students reported feeling Relaxed
  • 22% of students reported feeling OK
  • 57% of students reported feeling Frustrated
  • 14% of students reported feeling Stressed

On the Math* side, I only thought to ask one of the two classes.  31 students responded:

  • 13% of students reported feeling Confident
  • 3% of students reported feeling Relaxed
  • 42% students reported feeling OK
  • 32% of students reported feeling Frustrated
  • 10% students reported feeling Stressed

*Of the 31 respondents in math, 7 students (or 22%) report being in advanced math. Interestingly, their responses were not fixed to a single response (e.g., not all the advanced math students felt confident).

Also of note, students reported feeling like the Math Performance Task was “ridiculously hard” as one stated, yet overall, these students felt more comfortable with the math side of the Field Test.

Good information from the very group who will be the most impacted by assessments in the long run.


Upcoming Events and Updated Resources

In an effort to respond to feedback from GBSD’s April 25th S&A Day, we’ve made some updates to the Events and Resources pages; we invite you to explore!

If you click on the Events tab at the top of the page, you’ll find a listing of several opportunities coming your way: the Teen Author Lecture on May 14th, STEM and math course offerings, Lanny Ball’s two upcoming writing workshops, and several other summer PD opportunities for educators of all stripes!

After sharing district data about student results on 7th and 10th grade Performance Assessments, we were asked about resources for replicating such tasks in the classroom. In Science and Social Sciences we’ve included a few text sets (different articles/perspectives on a certain topic) from which you may build constructed response or performance task questions. The ones included were vetted by Columbia Teachers College staff. Although aimed for use w/middle and high school students, you may want to consider adapting the articles to bring their Lexile Level down to meet the intended grade level band for which you are aiming. For help with this or finding texts for specific topics, creating constructed response or performance task questions, check in with your trusty Instructional Coaches!

For ELA folks, we’ve added a Mini-Performance Task courtesy of Canby High School.

Additional resources for ready-made teaching modules with embedded Common Core tasks can be found at Literacy Design Collaborative Core Tools.  Access to the modules does require you to create a FREE account, and I can attest I have not been inundated by emails or other SPAM because of my “membership.”

Still another site worth checking out for both Math and ELA folks is Engage New York, the website designed and maintained by the State Education Department of NY to support the implementation of Common Core. Again, full-blown teaching modules are available for public download and experimentation in your classroom.


Finally, Teacher’s College Reading Writing Project has files of text sets (from which I gathered the ones profiled in this post), on several ELA, Social Science, and Science topics. Additionally, staff have developed some Common Core aligned performance assessments available for free download, too.

We’ll keep adding to these. If you want 1:1 or team assistance in creating SBA-type assessments, please invite us in; we’re more than happy to help!

Text Dependent Analysis in YOUR classroom: Part 2

Text Dependent Analysis, a major focus of the Math and English Language Arts/Literacy (ELA) Common Core State Standards (CCSS), was the topic of our blog post last week.  Its focus is on gathering evidence and insight from inside a text, rather than outside of it (i.e. not dependent on background knowledge).  The questions associated with the analysis must be able to be answered only from evidence from the text.  This week, we’ve found some ideas to help you incorporate this strategy into your instruction.

In the Math classroom…

Text dependent analysis is a key focus of our practice standards.  The math practices are the “how” to the “what” of our math content standards. A strong text dependent question in math would invite students to interpret and analyze the answer to a problem as well as analyze the mathematical process.  Characteristics of text dependent analysis in math include:

Text Dependent Q's Math

Which of the words in the right column are you using during class discussion, homework, and assessments?  Consider choosing one or two to include in your next lesson.

In the ELA/Science/Social Studies classrooms…

Remember, text dependent analysis does not mean asking students to complete a scavenger hunt for simple recall answers.  Rather, this strategy asks students to interpret the theme, as well as analyze syntax, vocabulary and the effects of word choice.

The excerpt below is from a document called, “A Guide to Creating Text Dependent Questions” from the website, Achieve the Core.  The website was created by the authors of the CCSS and includes resources helpful in implementing the ELA and Math standards. Consider choosing one of the tasks to incorporate into your next lesson.

Good text-specific questions will often linger over specific phrases and sentences to ensure careful comprehension of the text—they help students see something worthwhile that they would not have seen on a more cursory reading.  Typical text-dependent questions ask students to perform one or more of the following tasks:

  • Analyze paragraphs on a sentence-by-sentence basis and sentences on a word-by-word basis to determine the role played by individual paragraphs, sentences, phrases, or words
  • Investigate how meaning can be altered by changing key words and why an author may have chosen one word over another
  • Probe each argument in persuasive text, each idea in informational text, each key detail in literary text, and observe how these build to a whole
  • Examine how shifts in the direction of an argument or explanation are achieved and the impact of those shifts
  • Question why authors choose to begin and end when they do
  • Note and assess patterns of writing and what they achieve
  • Consider what the text leaves uncertain or unstated

Other examples from Achieve the Core:

Text-Dependent Q Examples

How do you incorporate Text Dependent Analysis into your lessons?  Leave a comment for us!  

And, let us know if we can help.

Text Dependent Analysis in Math, Science, Social Studies, and ELA: Part 1

As we work to help our students become college and career ready, we need to make sure we are focusing on the right things.  We need to think across our students’ day.  We need to get the biggest bang for our buck.  If we look across the common core standards, focusing on text dependent analysis throughout the student’s day may just be the ticket.

As you know, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) have issued Math Practice standards as well as Math Content standards.  The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) has always encouraged the teaching of math practice standards; the Smarter Balanced Assessment (SBA) will now assess these practices.  The standards describe what mathematically proficient students should be able to do when they graduate in order to be college and career ready.

Likewise, the CCSS issued College and Career Readiness (CCR) Anchor Standards for Reading and Writing and are to be considered the “backbone” of the literacy standards.  The Standards for English Language Arts, the Standards for Literacy in Science and Technical Subjects, and the Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies have all been written directly from these anchor standards.

There has been some discussion about the correlation between the Math Practice Standards and the Anchor Standards, specifically around text dependent analysis and the idea of precision.  The table below outlines the standards in each area.  The items in the table that require text dependent analysis have been highlighted.

Table of Standards.  Highlighted text requires text dependent analysis.

Table of Standards. Highlighted text requires text dependent analysis.

Notice that 90% of the reading standards, and 40% of the writing standards require text dependent analysis (cite evidence, central ideas, evaluate claims, interpret words in the text, close reading, etc).  The math practice standards follow suit with 75% of them asking students to do the same kinds of thinking.  Mathematically proficient students make sense of problems, critique the reasoning of others, look for structure in problems and regularity in reasoning, and attend to precision.

So why is this important?  Our big vision should not be the standards, but helping our students be college and career ready. We need to focus our energy on text dependent questions, asking for evidence to back up an argument.  We need to continue to place the precision of vocabulary high on our priority list.  This focus needs to happen in Math, Science, Social Studies, and ELA.  Text dependent analysis seems to be the glue that allows for coherence in the student’s day.

Stay tuned next week for some resources on text dependent analysis to use in YOUR classroom.

What, I have to teach English too?: Close Reading

In late October, we had the opportunity to attend a day of the National Science Teachers Association Regional Conference at the Oregon Convention Center. Our interest in attending was for the Common Core State Standards Literacy Strand. A few of the sessions stood out, like What, I have to teach English too?, Close Reading in Science, and Bridging the Literacy Gap. Most of you already know the Common Core requires the integration of literacy (reading and writing) standards into Science and Technical Subjects as well as History and Social Studies.

It’s long been the realm of the English teacher to provide reading and writing instruction, but what the designers of CCSS have determined is that there are different ways of reading and writing in the content areas. A student reading literary non-fiction, such as Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is going to need different skills to comprehend that text than they would Jearl Walker’s essay “Amusement Park Physics.” Similarly, writing an informational piece on a favorite book is going to employ different skills than would a lab report or an analysis of the contributing factors leading to dropping the bomb on Hiroshima. We know teachers are frustrated trying to integrate literacy into their curriculum when students struggle just to read what’s on the page. We don’t pretend to have all the answers, but here’s a literacy strategy that might be helpful (in all subjects) as you work toward integrating literacy into your curriculum: Close Reading.

The NSTA session in which we participated was led by David Vernot, Science Curriculum Specialist from Butler County Educational Service Center in Ohio. He shared a close reading exercise that could be used K-12, with content in any subject area. He emphasized using a short piece of text to teach this skill: no more than a page and perhaps less depending on the age of the students. Here’s the process:

  1. Have students read the selection (cold).
  2. Ask students to circle any vocabulary they think is important to understanding the text (think academic vocabulary).
  3. Students share words in small groups to see if there are common struggles and to benefit from anyone who might already know the definition. (Students should ask for and teachers should clarify unknown words before moving on).
  4. Have students LISTEN to the text being read. There is value in students hearing a selection read by a good reader (most likely the teacher).
  5. Employ the 3, 2, 1 strategy: students should write down 3 important words about the topic, 2 things you now know about the topic, and one question.

Ex. David introduced our topic through a children’s book called Next Time You See a Seashell.

  • 3 important words: mollusks, gastropods, bivalve
  • 2 things I now know: bivalves look like ½ the shell is missing; gastropods come to a point
  • 1 question: Are there any other categories of shells?

And, there you have it! A start to close reading.

In the second example, we read a more sophisticated article (though not science this time) which was an excerpt of an interview with the author Douglas Fisher about close reading. Again, we started by reading silently and circling/highlighting important words to help us understand the meaning. Next, we listened to it read well (in this case, we saw the video clip of the interview). After that, we shared our potentially confusing words with the class and they were clarified. Finally, we wrote a paragraph paraphrasing the article on a blank side of a sheet of paper (try the recycling bin). This time we were instructed to have no name on our papers and he led us in the snowball activity.  Once each of us had a snowball, we opened and read them making comparisons to our own paraphrases. David asked for a few volunteers to read aloud their anonymous summary.

A logical step for either variation (though we ran out of time) would be to provide students text dependent questions  to complete with a partner or individually. Results: engaged students, collective understanding, and a strategy students can employ again and again.

Learnin’ a zillion ways: a website resource

Happy New Year!

The best part of school is seeing your friends.  Isn’t that what kids say?  We think it is true.  Knowing that we get to see you all made our first day back bearable!

Looking through the email list of blogs and newsletters that have accumulated since December 21, the ones that jumped out were several received from LearnZillion.

LearnZillion is a website full of whiteboard video lessons that are matched to the Common Core Standards (CCSS) for Math and ELA. Many of the ELA lessons, especially in reading informational text can be adapted to social science and science, and the reading strategies modeled are effective for ALL.  You need to create an account (free!) and then start searching.  Not every standard is complete. This website is a work in progress, which is understandable considering the CCSS are relatively new.

Use the categories at the top – Math Courses, ELA Courses, Common Core Navigator – to help search for specific standard focused lessons.  Incidentally, a “course” is basically a series of lessons, each ranging from about 4-9 minutes, based on grade level/complexity. Once you’ve selected a series of videos, there is a chance you will have access to guided practice, slides, assessments, and sometimes even a Spanish video lesson.  Look in the right hand column to see what is available for that particular video.

LearnZillion also allows you to set up a class and monitor the progress of students.  We’re not sure how this compares to IXL, but it is free, and free is a very good price!

The videos are created by select teachers who are paid to make them in the summer.  In fact, if you are interested, they are accepting applications now through February 9 for a 2014 Dream Team to create more videos.

There are many ways to use LearnZillion.  Some might use it as a review to start class, or as an introduction to the next lesson.  Maybe it could be used for a student who was absent.  Some of you have “flipped” your classroom; these videos may be a helpful addition to that model.  Check out the article titled 9 Ways to Use LearnZillion in the Classroom for more ideas.

Below are some applicable lessons you may choose to use:


6.EE.8 (Write and graph inequalitites)  http://learnzillion.com/lessons/2614-write-and-graph-inequalities-shopping

7.G.6 (Surface area of prisms)  http://learnzillion.com/lessons/3446-find-surface-area-of-cubes-of-prisms-using-formulas

8.EE.8 (Systems by substitution) http://learnzillion.com/lessons/4045-solve-pairs-of-linear-equations-visually-by-using-visual-models

S.ID.6 (Scatterplots) http://learnzillion.com/lessons/2934-describe-the-relationship-between-variables

G.GPE.4 (Rectangles on coordinate plane) http://learnzillion.com/lessons/285-prove-whether-a-figure-is-a-rectangle-in-the-coordinate-plane


8.RI.1, 2, 4, 10 (previewing a text, chunking, and visualization, among others with a Science focused article)  http://learnzillion.com/lessonsets/308-close-reading-informational-text-top-ten-reallife-body-snatchers

11-12.RI.1, 3, 4, 6, 8 (author’s purpose, identifying tone, and analyzing rhetoric, among others with a Social Studies focused article) http://learnzillion.com/lessonsets/576-close-reading-informational-text-the-souls-of-black-folk-of-our-spiritual-strivings

Happy Learnin’!