Saturday, 5 July 2014

Readings better than this blog...

First of all, let me say that professional reading is some of the most valuable PD I have ever attended, and best of all, you can attend it on planes, cars (if you don't get dizzy) and even in bed. Awesome!

Let's face it, professional reading is superior to most other types of PDs in many ways other than convenience. For one, instead of learning from people who have read the experts, you are learning directly from the experts. No summarising, no paraphrasing and - therefore - no errors or bias in interpretations. Plus, if it's not value-adding to your teaching practice, you can tune out or, better yet, skip to a part that is. If something needs time to digest, stop and digest for a few days, then keep going. In that sense, it is the teachers' PD version of differentiated instruction, and therefore much more engaging than many other PDs that we sit through, gaining snippets of value here and there, with lunch on our mind in between those moments.

Below is a list of my most value-adding professional readings to date, none of which are at all secrets. It's always more valuable and enthralling to start with the best, and these texts are absolutely renowned far-and-wide as the premium texts on classroom management, numeracy and literacy instruction and practice - and they deliver.

Teach like a Champion

Last holidays, during some long-haul flights, I read Teach Like a Champion cover to cover and it met very high expectations. The techniques for behaviour management, lesson pacing and the overall philosophy of teaching and learning that it advocates are applicable equally to teachers from P-12. It was genuinely mind-blowing even after faring well teaching in a rough socio-economic environment.

George Booker

I have recently been reading Booker, a numeracy genius. Such is my admiration for his text that I have been reading it at a rate of about 150 pages a time because I can't believe I didn't read this sooner. In a way, I'm also grateful that I've only starting reading his full text now (as opposed to his diagnostic tests which I've been using forever) because I'm at a stage where I can associate with many of the misconceptions and gaps he points out from experience in the classroom, and having often pointed these out explicitly to students during modelling as warnings or potential pitfalls.

Chapter one was a bit of a shock to my system and led to thoughts like "oh my god, I suck at teaching math!" The following chapters were much more of a sigh of relief (mostly) and brought up thoughts of "how on Earth did I know to teach it almost precisely how he's delivered it," and the answer came pretty quickly: because that's what and how, in a rough environment, you found worked and stuck with students and that's what his 20+ years of research has shown works as well. So, in short, reading it is a 20+ year shortcut, even though, yes, hopefully a lot of it you'll be doing already, but hey, who doesn't like hearing that what they're already doing is backed by someone who's thought of in math nerd circles as a god.

I can also appreciate how and why his methods of teaching work, particularly if delivered sequentially and reliably across a school on a continuum, and how these would eliminate or at least drastically reduce the amount of gaps students present with in the higher grade levels. The chapters on numeration and the operations are particularly quality reading and, if you have any spare time (I know, ha!) it's definitely worth every page.

PS Don't buy the books if you can avoid it, ask around, a colleague is bound to have it or check your local teaching resource section or library. iBook versions are often available at reasonable prices too. Too often though, books are bought and put on our shelves (even virtual ones) never to be touched again. Personally, if a text is good enough to justify it, I believe in reading it cover to cover.

For this text, it is particularly helpful because the numeration chapter is critical to understanding the addition, subtraction, multiplication and division sections. Likewise, reading the full measurement chapter (as opposed to only sections as you teach it) gives you a very strong idea of how a measurement concept (be it length, angles, time, etc) is built up. Having never taught below grade three, it was especially helpful to see, and even in a way demystify, where (hopefully) my kids are coming from all the way since prep, and to give me a spyglass to mend any potential gaps that could be holding them back from the material that is at the grade three and up section of the continuum.

Fountas and Pinnell

At the moment, I'm neck-deep in Fountas and Pinnell, the literacy equivalent of Booker. It is exceptional material to say the least, particularly in its focus on comprehension strategies and the three ways of thinking about texts. I have long felt, and implemented in my practice, that comprehension strategies must form the basis for any reading program and exist on an equal standing to the also crucial, but not equally neglected, elements of phonics and fluency in the literacy classroom. At present, I run a focus on a reading strategy (predicting with evidence, using connections to infer, summarising by determining importance, etc) for three weeks, with a focus on that strategy during interactive reading at the start of sessions, independent reading (don't get me started on the fallacy of literacy rotation activities), literature circles/book clubs and guided groups, along with the needs-based strategies of those students.

Fountas and Pinnell's recent article, Guided Reading: The Romance and the Reality (The Reading Teacher, Vol 66, Issue 4, 2012), highlights the common pitfalls and misconceptions relating to guided reading practice, and the next steps that most schools face in overcoming these. The fact is that some teachers only allow students to read from levelled book boxes, as opposed to actively promoting a love of reading through sourcing books of genuine interest to students and teaching them to determine whether the text is just-right, particularly from grade two and up. Yes, many students will choose books that are too hard for them - that is part of the learning conversations and explicit guidance that must occur. In allowing students more choice, freedom and control, and by providing them with book reviews where you actively 'sell books' to the class and auction these off by secretly prioritising and choosing books targeted at the most disengaged of your readers, you will be amazed at the level of engagement and focus you receive in return during independent reading. Students can then use these books for engaging in the tasks you set around the comprehension focus of the week, as well as during word studies.

More concerning is the fact that some teachers, as the latest F&P article indicates, are still using the same guided reading book for all or 4 of 5 of their groups. Given that my name is on this blog, I cannot express my true feelings about that practice without restraining them somewhat. Safe to say that when I think about the novels I specifically choose with the comprehension and continuum-based needs of my highest readers in mind, and the levelled text I choose for my second lowest group with their next steps in mind, the difference between those texts is perhaps equal to the difference between the progress garnished from the practices advocated by the experts above, and that achieved by those who choose to remain ignorant of them.

Like most great leaders (and with more patient tolerance than I clearly possess), Fountas and Pinnell focus on what we have done well, but then deliver the message - as gently as possible - that many schools still have a long journey ahead to deliver world-class guided and classroom reading programs. Yes, that's a confronting thought when many teachers would prefer to live in the ignorant bliss of running of a 'guided reading structure' and believe, on that basis, that they will leverage the same results of others who are continuing to take on the far more complex challenge of running a needs-based, challenging, dynamic, student-centred reading program.

So, in short, stop reading so many crappy teaching blogs - like this one - and read some real experts.

If you have any suggestions for what to read next, I'd love to hear about some readings that made a difference to you as a teacher.

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