Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Close Reading + Teacher Time Outs

Last week, I had the pleasure of working with one of our teachers for three days straight, trying to learn as much as we could about Close Reading.

Some background:

1. I wrote about Close Reading before. If you're into problem-based mathematics, you are probably the type who would like reading instruction centered on close reading.

2. Close reading is something that Achievement First has been taking fairly seriously for 2-3 years now. It is, at this point, central to our model. This is one of the areas in which I feel very lucky to have been at the right place at the right time, because I've been able to learn about something so powerful from people who really know what they're talking about.

3. Our school's "greenfield" model for next year has small-group close reading at the core of our humanities instruction, bolstered by a barrage of content knowledge, daily small-group writing with feedback, and twice-weekly seminars for students to discuss the big ideas of what they're learning, grounding everything in the myriad texts they've read.

4. The teacher I was working with, Tanesha, is a phenomenal teacher who is leading the close reading in our 5th grade next year, who has taught in a lot of ways and is eager to learn more about close reading. We've worked together in the past, and I'm ecstatic that she is joining our school community (and that she will be one of my own kids' teachers in the near future.)

5. Our close reading teaching cycle takes two days, and consists of
  • A 45-minute intellectual prep meeting, in which teachers get to know the texts (together) and target outcomes deeply and prepare a hybrid script/menu that will allow them to help students draw out key findings from the text while ensuring that the teacher's mind is squarely on student thinking (i.e. listening to students, rather than listening for specific answers.)
  • Day 1 of teaching (45 minutes), with real-time coaching
  • Studying student work and intellectually preparing for day 2.
  • Day 2 of teaching (45 minutes), with real-time coaching
  • Studying student work to determine next steps
6. For what it's worth, our math teaching cycle is fairly similar, except that the two-day cycle doesn't always hold.

Here's what was great about this:

For these three days of "training" (training is in parentheses because it was more like co-exploring than a transfer of knowledge), we only worked with three students (all at the same time). We asked a teacher for a few kids with different levels of reading proficiency and ended up pulling Jordan, Marc, and Tina (pseudonyms, of course). There is something really special about getting to know a small group of kids as learners.

The text we selected, Because I Could not Stop for Death by Emily Dickinson, is simply a great poem. It's a lot of fun to read with kids of different ages. In this case, we were working with fourth graders...I'm not sure I would want to read the poem with kids younger than this, but I remembered the last time a teacher and I read it with a group of fifth graders, one of the kids, Jacob, said it was his new favorite poem OR song. There is a lot of joy in reading great texts with kids. There is also a lot of joy in reading great texts without kids - we did plenty of that, too, and it was exhilarating to dive deeper and deeper into each of these texts together.

By day two, Tanesha was getting far more out of the texts than I had gotten in my multiple reads. She was on fire, and bringing a close reading lens to everything she read at this point. I kinda expected this, because she's amazing, but it's nice to see your concept of someone validated so beautifully.

Probably the most fun we had was in teaching the kids, because of something I learned in a conversation with Elham Kazemi while at the NCTM national convention. I missed her talk at #shadowcon15, but you can catch the re-runs here. Tanesha and I had a lot of fun taking a liberal amount of time outs, asking each other things like:
* How about that line of questioning? Was I really having kids doing the thinking there?
* Should we ask for more evidence or push for more ideas?
* I want to ask this - is it too leading?
* Given what Jordan said, how do we figure out if he understands this? [points to anticipated response from planning page]

At one point, Marc called a "student time out", and the students started discussing the ideas in the poem on their own, without teacher intervention. This was great because it showed student ownership, it was a subtle way for Marc to make fun of us in a collegial way, and it gave us some necessary feedback that we probably weren't spending enough time sitting back and letting kids discuss.

All in all, the experience solidified my belief that reading great texts with great kids and great teachers is a pretty incredible way to spend my days. I'm looking forward to the next round, to seeing this in action with math and science lessons, and to continuing to grow through our school's collective wisdom and ongoing iteration!

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