Bringing Common Core Critical Thinking to Sonora Elementary School

This past Monday I had the pleasure of presenting a full-day workshop to the teachers at Sonora Elementary in Sonora, Arkansas, which is a part of the Springdale Public School System.  The school itself was built three years ago and last year was Year 1 for them.  The principal, Regina Stewman, contacted me last year through my blog, to ask me questions about the running record growth lines I had posted and the set-up of our guided reading room.  The similarities in instructional principles and practices at Sonora Elementary and Lake Myra Elementary are abundant, so I guess, to her, bringing me in for staff development just seemed logical <<<ok, maybe there's other reasons!>>> (More about bringing me in- later in this post).  Regina and I have been in close contact over the last year and her school began implementing the Common Core this year as well.  She purchased 35 licenses for my Revised Bloom's Taxonomy Thinking Posters in order to implement them school-wide....yeah for the students at Sonora! What lucky little ones! She also purchased the Rules for Discussion for her teachers and downloaded the free critical thinking frames.  Her 1st grade team is now using Rainbow Words and her 2nd grade and intervention groups are using Rainbow Phrases.  The Kindergarten and 1st grade team will be piloting my literature based Phonological Awareness lessons are excited to get started.   Regina is truly a principal on a mission to do what's best for students and teachers! She is a go-getter principal, reads my blog, read other literacy blogs, reads current research and stays abreast of the Common Core...although she doesn't teach, she is a strong instructional leader for Sonora and the teachers are lucky to have an administrator that is so incredibly supportive! Before I left, she had applied to her central office for a district credit card  when I told her that the Lake Myra secretary bought 15 copies of Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction, for the used price of .01 on Amazon using a district credit card...I'm sure that before my plane left the airport they were all ordered, I have no doubt!  Now, do you see why I love Regina and Sonora Elementary so much...this school is like a walking billboard for Hello Literacy...I love it!!!

Anyway...we spent all day Monday-- their only day back before kids started on Tuesday, with Fifty Shades of the Common Core...a presentation I created this September after presenting at South Mebane Elementary School here in North Carolina. (You can see my presentation, although I've even tweaked this one since originally posted it at Slideshare.)   In my presentation, I spend a good bit of time sharing strategies with teachers on how to develop the critical thinking skills of their students before even thinking of developing them as critical readers.  This part took most of the morning and although teachers may have been overwhelmed by lunch, they reported that they wanted to run back to their classrooms and start making stuff based on everything they'd learned from the morning.  I had suggested to the principal that she give them a form to complete during the afternoon. It's an idea I got from Molly Upchurch at Siler City Elementary this is something they do after staff developments...the sheet has three columns..."What I Can Implement Right Now", "What I Can Implement This Semester", and "What I Can Implement Next Year".  

As we resumed after lunch, we began digging deep into the shift of Text Complexity, (not originally part of the Fifty Shades presentation) and Close Readings (I blogged earlier about a close reading lesson I had done with my reading group using Two Bad Pilgrims), Book Introductions in the Common Core (what they should look and sound like...I blogged about this earlier blog post), Characteristics of Complex Text and some of the strategies shared by Kylene Beers in her new book, Notice and Note: Strategies for Close Reading.  

One of the things I learned from this staff is that close readings are essential if we want our students thinking about text ideas and making deep meaning AND understanding.  I realized that there are some key characteristics that make text complex and the more we can be aware of this "before" students read the complex text, the more we will be able to scaffold our students and set them up for success.  Some of the characteristics that make text complex are the following (from Shanahan's presentation, slide 21):

Scaffolding Text Features
  • Complexity of Ideas/Content
  • Match of Text & Reader Prior Knowledge
  • Complexity of Vocabulary
  • Complexity of Syntax
  • Complexity of Coherence
  • Familiarity of Genre Demands
  • Complexity of Text Organization
  • Subtlety of Author's Tone
  • Sophistication of Literary Devices 
Other Approaches
  • Provide sufficient fluency
  • Use stair-steps or apprentice texts
  • Teach comprehension Strategies
Several of the slides that follow (in Shanahan's presentation) give examples of vocabulary and coherence complexity...I especially like how Shanahan demonstrates (using the barbershop scene from Because of Winn Dixie) not pre-teaching, "what is a barbershop?" but more generalized and abstract, teaching students the pattern of human behavior when the boy denies knowing the dog inside the barbershop...Shanahan believes we should explain to children why characters (and real humans) tell white lies in the first place...this behavior is more generalizable to other stories and human nature, and much more "teaching bang for your buck" than teaching children what a barbershop is.   To demonstrate text complexity to the Sonora staff, I had them each read a piece of text, of which parts of each were complex. I gave K-3rd teachers a chapter from Beverly Cleary's book, Ramona Quimby, Age 8 (the chapter, Rainy Sunday) and I gave 4th-5th teachers, the first few pages of a non-fiction text, When Is A Planet Not a Planet: The Story of Pluto by Elaine Scott.     

The first two pages of the Rainy Sunday chapter is quite an exemplary demonstration of complex text for several reasons. One, there is a multitude of unfamiliar vocabulary words on the first two pages: dismal, ceaseless, pelting, dreary, and clawed (and not used in the animal sense).   Two, there are several complex (structure) sentences, including the second sentence of the chapter: 

"She pressed her nose against the living-room window, 
watching the ceaseless rain pelting down as the bare black
 branches clawed at the electric wires in front of the house."

Three, Beverly Clearly uses a lot of angry adjectives and descriptive language to paint a picture of one Sunday afternoon in the Clearly house...that by the end of the second page, you are so glad you are not there! Four, there's symbolism with the rain, right, nothing good ever happens when it's raining in books?  

On a 'close reading' of these two pages, a teacher would scaffold these 'complexities' for students and *not* glaze over them in a cursory fashion...attention would be drawn to them as to spend more time on these two pages, giving it the full attention it deserves and clue-ing students in on all the elements they might otherwise all the words alone, don't seem very complex, but it's the author's use of the words put together that make it challenging, all the while asking students questions like:

Why did the author choose to say it that way?
What kind of a mood was the author trying to show by including so many words in this sentence?
Why didn't the author just use the word ____ instead?
How did the author want you to feel by saying it that way? 

The second piece of text read by the 4th and 5th grade teachers, is also complex in it's own way.  If you're not familiar with the book, When Is A Planet Not a Planet: The Story of Pluto, and I don't want to ruin it for you, but it is actually not a "story" per se, nor is it about Pluto, the planet.  This narrative non-fiction story is about the scientific journey of how scientists came to classify it as a planet and then unclassify as a planet and the scientific claims and reasons that they used and disputed in the process over the years. This concept alone is difficult for students to get because the title makes you think it's going to be about Pluto, when it's really more about the scientific process that scientists go through.   Anyway, this text is rife with Tier 3 vocabulary words about space, space exploration, astronomy, astrophysics, space science, etc. There is one sentence in particular, among many, that is complex (for 4th & 5th graders), or at least it was to my students.  Would you agree? 

"However, on August 24, 2006, the International Astronomical Union (IAU),
a group of individual astronomers and astronomical societies
 from around the world, made an announcement." 

For a sentence length of 25 words, the verb occurred as the 23rd word! Phew, that's a long time after the sentence started!!! Did you stay with it? Will your kids if you don't scaffold them?

By now, you can probably start to get a feel for the teaching points you would scaffold for your students with a sentence, page, chapter or text like these examples.  

I mentioned earlier that I am in the middle of reading a good book right now, called Notice and Note: Strategies for Close Reading by Kylene Beers and Robert Probst, available from Heinemann.

 (I should have it finished by tomorrow) but in Part 1, they outline characteristics of 'close reading': 

1. It works with a short passage.
2. The focus is intense.
3. It will extend from the passage itself to other parts of the text.
4. It should involve a great deal of exloratory discussion.
5. It should involve re-reading.
6. (and I am adding this one) It will require the teacher to have read the text first.

"Close reading should suggest close attention to the text; close attention to the relevant experience, thought and memory of the reader; close attention to the responses and interpretations of other readers; and close attention to the interactions among those elements." (Beers & Probst, 2012, p. 37)

And close reading, in my opinion, is not a quantity issue, it's a quality issue.  Close reading shouldn't be counted, tallied or collected...the question should never be, "How many close readings are you doing? but rather, "How are you doing close readings?

Overall, I was very excited that the teachers were excited to go back and try some new things in their classrooms and I was even more tickled that they texted me pictures all day Tuesday.  Here are some of the pictures that many of the teachers texted in (you'll remember from last spring's blog post about the power of  BECAUSE for justifying our thinking)... I told them this could potentially be the most powerful slide in my presentation....

Teachers were also glad to put some systems and structures in place to help kids could work independently while teachers were busy teaching small groups of students (and couldn't be interrupted)...The famous Problem/Solution Chart....

 I was also very surprised by the showering of gifts and Southern hospitality at the end of the day. Charlisa French, the art teacher, made me this beautiful silver owl necklace....

...another gift (which is apparently a gift-giving tradition around Sonora) I received was an Arkansas Razorback pig nose {{lucky me!}} oh, and the photo with it *on* is a part of the tradition, too! :-)

...and then, as if I didn't feel warm and appreciated enough, I got a standing suey cheer! WoW! Could I feel the Arkansas love!!!! Yes, ma'am!  Regina Stewman, now I know why you are a Distinguished Principal!

Truly though, in all seriousness, I had a great time (like I always do presenting)...but it really hit me after I went back to my hotel room on Monday night, (when, after my presentation was over, and Janet Harris from the Springdale district office had been present all day and asked if I would be interested in coming back this summer to work with the Elementary Instructional Facilitators [which is what we call IRT's, what I am for my school]) I was know, there's probably a lot or a good handful of Common Core experts out there that know the Common Core really well...but they don't teach or have not taught in a classroom since the Common Core was adopted AND there's probably A LOT of great teachers out there teaching the Common Core way, but don't present....and that's what makes me unique. I AM a teacher who know the Common Core really well, I am a teacher who actually teaches the Common Core way in real classrooms AND I present.  I do it for my own school, in fact, next week when we track back in, one of our staff development sessions will be about Text Complexity & Close Reading, two elements we have not yet tackled at Lake Myra, but will soon.  I have no intention of quitting my job, but if I can assist your school in some Common Core training with practical, applicable strategies, please send me an email, my principal is very supportive of  my literacy consulting, and for that I am truly grateful! Although I must take non-paid days off when I go and "work" for other school districts and I don't need his permission to be out, it is important to me to have his blessing...thank you, Dr. Argent. :-) 

  I will be back in Alamance County at Highland Elementary on January 22nd and back in Chatham County at Pittsboro Elementary School on March 13th.  I will also be presenting at the North Carolina Reading Conference on Sunday, a two hour institute from 4-6pm, Fifty Shades of the Common Core, and on Tuesday, March 12, Reciprocal Teaching: It's Place in the Common Core, with some colleagues from ECU.  

Until next time...happy reading! ~Jen 



Jill H said...

You are amazing!!! I was just showing my Principal my "adventures" in trying to make sense of close reading and I had a handful of your materials in my stack, plus your Bloom's posters on the wall and several slides from 50 shades of CCSS I had printed, laminated and posted near my desk. I told her all about how amazing I think you are :) thanks for the motivation and knowledge. If you have time, I have a few questions.

Mrs. Garcia said...

Wow, wow, wow...your truly an inspiration. Keep up the awesome work you do and thanks for sharing.

Jennifer Jones said...

Sure Jill...send me your questions. :-)

Jen (Hello Mrs. Sykes) said...

Absolutely amazing work, Jennifer! So glad to see you mention Notice and Note - I am about halfway through, and keep finding myself going back to reread and let the concepts resonate! An inspirational text! :)

Hello Mrs Sykes

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