Tip of the Week
[Re-posted from "Simple Science Strategies," April 3, 2013]
Struggling to find time to teach science in a day full of math and language arts?
Trying to move beyond fun activities to authentic learning tasks that lead to big scientific thinking?
Wondering how to take your students beyond the superficial to the higher order thinking of a real scientist?
Get a copy of The Essentials of Science and Literacy.
Who Would Enjoy The Essentials of Science and Literacy ?
- Literacy support teachers who are in classrooms during science instruction;
- Teachers in priority districts, where the traditional focus has been on increasing literacy scores;
- Teachers who like to use an integrated approach to instruction;
- Instructional coaches who are charged with helping teachers improve their practice;
- Any teacher who wants to raise the level of rigor and engagement in their literacy and science work.
Read a review of The Essentials of Science and Literacy
For ordering information:
Click on the image, above, for information on ordering this text from Barnes & Noble.
, lesson plans
, classroom environment
, Simple Science Strategies
, integrated curriculum
Most of the time I am asked to help in a school, my role is about how to support teachers, who are supporting students with learning obstacles. I have been working with many teachers this winter, discussing ways to
Here are some of the students I'm talking about:
- Very young students who have not yet mastered reading
- Elementary students whose limited vocabulary interferes with understanding
- Learners of all ages whose reading or language difficulties make learning a challenge
- Students with disabilities or differing learning preferences who need more visual or concrete scaffolding than typically provided
- English Language Learners who are trying to navigate both the language demands and content demands of their classwork
- "New Arrivals" who are only just beginning to learn English as a second language
- Adult learners who have had many years of learning struggles
In the video, below, Matthew Peterson from the MIND Research Institute
shares how the Institute's new ST Math Software helps students develop high-level mathematical thinking without using words, at all.
I wanted to share this fun math rap that I saw a teacher use in Grade 6 last week. Students groaned at watching the video (again), but then they bobbed and rapped along with it, and did a bang up job on their classwork afterward. Go figure.
Here is Mr. C, singing the PEMDAS Rap:
[My thanks to Eric Weingarten, Grade 6 teacher at Franklin Mayberry School in East Hartford, for introducing me to the great math videos by "Mr. C!"]
What's Been on the Calendar Here:
Here at Northside Consulting, the dust has settled, and we are well into the school year. What are we working on?
- The use of part-part-whole diagrams to teach second graders the relationship between addition and subtraction;
effective progression from concrete, to representational, to abstract,
when using manipulatives and diagrams in primary math instruction;
- Teaching kindergartners that meaning is created between words, by the use of high-frequency phrases;
student-to-student discourse to promote language development, using
cooperative learning strategies in Sheltered Instruction classes;
- Developing classroom libraries in the middle grades;
- Classroom arrangements that promote discussion in the upper elementary grades;
- Unpacking Common Core State Standards to determine key concepts, skills and vocabulary;
- Determining "acceptable evidence of learning"
- Increasing Academic Engaged Time through the use of cooperative learning and high-quality learning centers in the middle grades;
- Using classroom learning tasks as authentic assessment opportunities.
Very exciting stuff!
We've begun a new website dedicated to science education, Simple Science Strategies
. Click on the image, below, to check out this month's focus: Questioning.
Some posts that will be coming up this month, in "Tip of the Week":
- The use of visuals to support second language learners in high school...
- Developing learning centers based on the Common Core State Standards...
- Collecting the right data, and charting it so it answers your data question.
Meanwhile, we get ready for conferences and mid-term reports!
More on the Common Core State Standards in 2012-13!
Check you state's department of education web page for released sample assessment items from the Smarter Balanced Assessment.
- Rake leaves...
- Buy a pumpkin...
- Bake an apple pie...
- Clean your garden...
Have a great rest of the month!
Homogeneous groups are a type of instructional group where learners are placed with other students who are alike in some way. Literacy instruction in most public school settings includes
time in homogeneous groups, usually based on overall reading level, using
instructional level texts as the primary reading material. This structure is
based on the work of Marie Clay, and others, who advocate that students should
be working on their instructional level,
with texts that are just a little higher than what they can read and comprehend
independently. Identifying a student’s independent, instructional and
frustration levels in reading has made reading instruction much more enjoyable
for students, and has led to better targeting of specific foci for instruction,
for groups of students.
While homogeneous groups have their place in instruction,
only using homogeneous, leveled groups can lead to some unintended problems in instruction:
- While they may progress within their instructional level groups, students in the lower groups often do not “accelerate” – that is, the lowest
performing students do not make up a year and a half’s growth over the course
of the school year, and end the year as behind as when they started the year;
- Learners work with their instructional level
texts, but students do not apply learned strategies to more challenging texts, nor learn
additional strategies for navigating appropriately complex texts (e.g., grade-level,
or above) – and these might not even be the same strategies;
- Although generally supported as a strategy for increasing performance of gifted and
talented students, scientific literature does not necessarily support homogeneous ability grouping for other groups;
- Grouping of students based on literacy level
creates de facto tracking, as other content areas may now be “leveled” because
of scheduling reading instruction;
- Students in the highest groups often do not receive an
equitable level of instruction, as they generally are more independent in
academic tasks, and can complete grade-level assignments without adult
assistance – consequently, while they start out and end the year ahead of their
classmates, they do not make a year’s growth, as they often receive less actual
direct instruction with appropriately challenging material;
- Homogeneous grouping may undermine the use of
collaborative groups and student discourse, as the lowest readers might lack
sufficient oral language skills or background knowledge to have extended discourse
and the highest students may be accustomed to working in isolation, rather than
Reading Level, vs. Literacy Level
Using the overall reading level of a student (such as her
DRA level), rather than a specific skill area, can also make instruction challenging
in homogeneous groups:
- Because reading is a complex task, reading
level, alone, is not specific enough to help the teacher select an appropriate
instructional focus for a student;
- Students in a “group” may be at the same DRA
level for many different reasons, and need different strategies from one
- The students in the lowest performing groups may
need many different skills, that planning appropriate, targeted instruction
for their groups becomes challenging;
- Reading level only measures some components of
comprehensive literacy: speaking and listening, word work, writing and other
areas are not adequately measured by the DRA or other similar assessments;
- Student groups may become static, as reading level changes more slowly than specific skill proficiency.
Why Focus on Discourse?
Forming mixed instructional groups to foster
student-to-student discourse is based on several principles:
- The best peer to model a particular skill or
strategy is one who most recently mastered it;
- Listening and speaking come before reading and
- Comprehension of a topic or concept exists
separately from being able to decode a text about it;
- Comprehension can be measured by how well a
student discusses a topic or concept;
- Talking about a topic or concept is a rehearsal
for writing about it;
- Discussion has to be explicitly taught, just
like other literacy skills.
Forming Discussion Groups
Here is one way to form groups that foster
- Rank the students in your class from 1-5 on
their English Oral Language, with 1 being a beginner, and 5 being the highest
with regard to their oral language skills (ability to converse, vocabulary use,
ability to listen to other speakers, ability to work around sticky points when
working with a group, etc.).
- Form groups of students with mixed rankings,
with a range of similar (but not the same) abilities (see the graphic for an
example), such as 1-2-3 together, 2-3-4 together, and 3-4-5 together.
- To distribute the groups among several
classrooms, you can now have a low, medium and high group, but the groups will
be heterogeneous. And, because you are grouping on a specific skill, you won’t
have “predictable” groups: e.g., you might have a student ranked as a 4 or 5,
based on oral language and group leadership, who is a struggling decoder,
Provide literacy tasks at a lower reading level
than instructional, because your focus will be on discussion strategies to
prepare a group oral response to questions. (Literature Circles work well for
To Form Groups across Classrooms
Rank the students for the whole grade level.
[NOTE: This example assumes the following distribution of
students, when ranked by oral language proficiency, just as an example. Use
your own numbers here.]
- Rank 1 – 8 students (new arrivals, with limited
English oral language proficiency)
- Rank 2 – 12 students
- Rank 3 – 20 students
- Rank 4 – 16 students
- Rank 5 – 4 students
You will want groups of 5 students for discourse. In this
example, there are 20 students per classroom, or 4 groups per classroom.
To form “leveled” classrooms (to prioritize
assignment of adult supports, for example), concentrate the 1’s in one
classroom, and the 5’s in another (you may have to adjust this, depending on
your specific numbers).
Distribute students of a given rank across a
number of groups, paying attention to dynamics among particular students
(remember, you want conversation, so you want to create groups of students who
will be supportive of one another.
Refer to the diagram, below, for one way to form mixed instructional groups, based on a oral language proficiency, across multiple classrooms. (NOTE: This same technique could be used to form mixed groups for any other skill, as well).
Regardless of the content area (math, science,
reading, writing), provide learning tasks that focus on discussion.
- For reading, instead of guided reading groups, create literature circles, and
provide discussion prompts.
- For math, provide complex problems with multiple possible solutions, and have groups collaborate to solve the problems.
science, provide a scientific claim that students must find evidence to both
support AND refute, before they select their stance on the issue.
- For social studies, create a gallery walk of artifacts for students to discuss and respond to.
- For writing, create peer editing/revising groups for process writing assignments.
Grade Level: Upper elementary
, reluctant readers
, classroom environment
, cooperative learning
, second language support
, grouping strategies
Video Clip of the Week:
For a video on improving student engagement in the middle grades, see the video clip from The Teaching Channel
, showing grade eight students in language arts class. Also, see learning stations in action in a high school English literature class, see the video, below.
For more information on how to design effective small-group instruction, please see our New Teachers' Series
, and contact us for more information.
Have a terrific week!
We know that there are ways to review quiz results that are less than effective ("Okay, folks, number 4 is x+2... number 5 is 14... number 6 is..."). But we also know that we can't spend a whole class period working through each problem.
Here is a way that one department uses their SmartBoards to create an engaging, effective way for students to review quizzes and assessments.
SmartBoard Item Analysis
Students, especially as they get older, don't like to ask for help or share when they get an answer wrong. But most of us (adults included) don't mind at all when someone asks us which problem we got right.
Several science teachers at East Hartford Middle School
, in East Hartford, Connecticut, have students come up to the SmartBoard and plot a "smiley" (or a star, in another class) next to the number of each problem that they completed correctly.
In this example, the total number of students was 23. Most items had 21 correct responses (91%); the lowest correct response rate was the last item, where 19 students scored correct (83%).
After students plot their responses, the class can talk about items that were particularly problematic, or which stood out from the others. Because of the anonymity of the task, a teacher can ask, "Why might so many students have given an incorrect response to number three?" and students can begin to analyze the problems that occurred in that item, without talking specifically about their own work:
- "It said to 'justify your answer,' and I wasn't sure what 'justify' meant..."
- "Maybe they weren't sure which were the dependent and independent variables, because it wasn't given..."
- "If they didn't draw their line graph well, they couldn't really find out the intercept..."
- "Maybe they didn't understand what the question was asking..."
At Seymour High School
, a physics teacher has students use their cell phones as "responders," taking a common formative assessment that collects the answers in a shared spreadsheet on Google Docs
. The teacher can tell what time a student takes his quiz, and from where. He closes the "window" at a certain time -- anyone who hasn't logged in by that time is locked out of the quiz. Then he creates a graph of the responses for each item, that he posts on his SmartBoard, for the students to review. He can highlight the correct answer, and focus on incorrect responses that seemed to trip up a chunk of students.
Of course, if you are fortunate, you can purchase student responders to use with your SmartBoard, like the Connecticut Technical High School System
has. Practice tests and quiz review were never so much fun as when you can see the responses real-time, like a game show.
For more articles on technology and feedback in the classroom, see below:
In other news...
Here are the other interesting tidbits that have passed over my desk this week:
Last week I posted some information on data teams, including some links to other schools' websites, with forms, schedules and videos. The Connecticut State Department of Education has posted videos that Connecticut educators can access using your educator identification number (on your State Teaching Certificate). See the CALI (Connecticut Accountability for Learning Initiative) page
, sign in using your email and password, then click the "Media" tab.
If you loved Classroom Instruction that Works
and The Art and Science of Teaching,
then you will really love Visible Learning for Teachers
, by John Hattie. A group of teachers and consultants pored through this book as part of a Data Teams training recently, and we were astonished about the true impact (or lack of...) of some of our tried and true strategies. I won't spoil the surprise. Definitely one for the adminstrator bookshelf.
We Give Books
is a website where students can read children's books online, for free. Books read by online readers are matched with donations of books to one of several charitable causes aimed at putting books in the hands of children around the world. Bookmark the website for your computer center.
I remember one time, when my eldest son was about 15, he balked at some parental directive I had given him (I think it had something to do with what he had to eat), stating that he was "nearly grown now" and old enough to not have to listen to directions. I gently reminded him that, as long as he had "teen" at the end of his age, he was still officially a kid.
That worked to convince my son that he had to follow my directions still. But the logic also works when we are choosing the way to teach new or complex ideas to adolescents. While their bodies are big and they look like adults, they are still children, and learn just like their smaller, younger counterparts.
I get to visit a lot of classrooms and see the wonderful ways that teachers honor the "child" in their teenage students. I wanted to share some ideas that I have seen lately.
Working With Words
Ninth grade algebra students at E. C. Goodwin Technical High School, New Britain, CT, created posters to demonstrate their understanding of important vocabulary. The example in the photo to the right shows a student's knowledge of two different ways to report a range of data, as well as her understanding of the terms 5 number summary. mean, quartile, range and standard deviation.
Other ways secondary students have worked with words:
- "I Have... Who Has..." - a card game where students in a 10th grade geometry class reviewed vocabulary words and facts. In the game, a student has a two-sided card with an "I Have" side and a "Who Has" side. One students starts: "Who has a triangle with two equal sides?" Students check their cards, and another student responds, "I have an isosceles triangle. Who has an angle over 90 degrees?" Play continues until all have read both sides of their cards (Coginchaug Regional High School, Durham, CT).
- Props, Toys and Realia- While reading novels set in medieval times, a 9th grade English teacher provides period props: toy trebuchets, model castles, catapults, armored knights, etc. As vocabulary words are encountered ("turret," "keep," "lance," etc.) students refer to the props to help visualize the vocabulary words (Platt Technical High School, Milford, CT).
Showing What You Know
Many school walkthroughs ask the evaluators to look for examples of learning strategies posted for viewing and use by students. In this 9th grade math lab, students create the strategies posters, creating an interactive wall of procedures and strategies, from mnemonics for analyzing a word problem, to formulae for calculating surface area and volume of three dimensional solids. Not only did the posters show student understanding of the rules and strategies, but they were also available for reference and use by their classmates (E. C. Goodwin Technical High School, New Britain, CT).
Other ways students demonstrated their learning:
- Summary Jar --11th grade physics students summarize each day's work by drawing an activity from the "Summary Jar," which contains a variety of ways for students to bring closure to a lesson, from a "Singing Summary" to the "One Word Summary Chain," where students compose a collaborative summary, one word at a time. The class nominates a student to draw the summary, and can reject the choice. However, then the teacher gets to name the summary used! (Seymour High School, Seymour, CT)
- ReviewRelay -- In one 9th grade algebra class, students review for an exam with a little friendly team competition. The teacher posts questions and problems on one wall of the classroom. Students from each team race to the wall, select a problem, solve it quickly, and bring it to a "checker" (other students or support staff). If the answer is correct, they post the answer, and race back to tag the next "runner." If the answer is incorrect, they return the problem to the wall and select a new one to solve. Great fun for all (Coginchaug Regional High School, Durham, CT).
Once again at Goodwin Tech, 9th grade algebra students combined coordinate plots with topography to create 2D and 3D topographical maps.
The photo to the left shows an example of student work.
Design a Box --
Another math teacher provided strangely shaped objects (a stapler, a vase, an action figure) to small groups of her 8th grade students, and charged them with designing a packing box that minimized packaging while accommodating the item securely (Seymour Middle School, Seymour,CT
In Other News...
The National Research Council, the National Science Teachers Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and Achieve are working together to produce a new, national set of science standards. A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas
provides an overview of the key science concepts and skills, plus a rationale for creating science curriculum that concentrates on big idea rather than isolated facts. The document is available for free download or reading online.
If you are looking for timely, interesting ideas for March studies, Scholastic News
has lessons and other materials on Ellis Island, spring, St. Patrick's Day, healthy eating, and plants.
For those of you whose schools concentrate on the high-yield strategies discussed by Robert Marzano and associates, the article "Setting the Record Straight on High-Yield Strategies,"
by Marzano, himself, is a must-read. Learn what he intended, and didn't intend, by this meta-analysis of effective teaching strategies.
I used to love this time of year, as a teacher (I still do, as a consultant!). We would be wrapping up assessments and grades, and reflecting about our work. Children would be comparing a September writing piece to a May writing piece, and writing about how much they had grown and learned over the year. We would be pulling out those measurement explorations from the start of the year, and measuring how much we had grown in height, how much higher we could count without help, how many math facts we had mastered. We would be reviewing our reading logs from the year, categorizing our books, and making a list of recommendations for the incoming class for their book boxes. What a great way to spend the last days of school!
I know, as a teacher, I, too, would be reflecting and planning for next year. I would already have eyed one professional book to take home and digest over the summer. I would be itchy to see the list of kids I had coming the next year, and already would have begun forming flexible groups for reading, writing, and math, if only in my head. I would be carefully packing up learning centers as we wrapped them up, deciding which ones were "keepers," which needed "tweaking," and which were ideas, but maybe not great ones.
Tip of the Week: Plan Ahead
As you pack up your classroom, set aside some time to think ahead to 2011-12. And consider these ideas:
Bring more social studies into you language arts block.
- An unintended consequence of high-stakes testing is the squeezing of science, social studies and health into ever-shrinking chunks of the daily schedule.
- Children need to learn about themselves, their culture, their family and community, and then how they fit into time, place and the world. We are creating the future citizens (and rulers!) of our planet. That takes more than oral reading fluency and the ability to solve strand 25 questions in math.
- The ideas and strategies in Teaching History to Your Homeschooling Child, Grades K-3 also work for integrating social studies into your primary grades language arts curriculum. Do some reading up on this over the summer.
Bring more culture, diversity and global perspective into your lessons.
- Bill Howe, from the Connecticut State Department of Education, hosts an outstanding blog on all things multicultural. His most recent post is a young woman singing the National Anthem of the United States, in Lakota.
- Check out his blog, Bill Howe on Multicultural Education. Better yet, subscribe to his newsletter, and you'll get notice of his postings in your mailbox, weekly. Great for your own learning, and also great for sharing with students.
Do a little reading over the summer.
- If you want a quick read: The Daily Five, by Gail Boushey and Joan Moser ("the 2 sisters," as they refer to themselves).
- Check out their website, The Daily Cafe, for many resources on elementary literacy.
- Then, sign up for their weekly newsletter and you will get a "Tip of the Week" in your email box.
- Click on the image for ordering information.
- For something that you will have to ponder over a bit before putting into practice: Words Their Way (Donald R. Bear, Marcia Invernizzi, Shane Templeton, Francine Johnston).
- Includes the Developmental Spelling Inventory, a great tool for establishing the overall literacy level of your students, and for determining a word study focus for your small-group guided reading.
- Activities, word sorts, included on CD with the book. Click on the image for ordering information.
- For a book that will make you go, "Hmmmmm..." : Drive, by Daniel Pink -- a book on that "m" word: motivation, what it is, and what it's not.
- Find out what tasks respond to external motivators, and which might actually be undermined by outside influence, no matter how well-intentioned.
- Click on the image for ordering information.
- Also check out this TED Talks presentation on motivation, featuring Dan Pink.
- If you want something just for fun: Teacher Man, by Frank McCourt, Irish immigrant, author, commentator and high school English teacher.
- If you have not read any of McCourt's books (Angela's Ashes, 'Tis), you are in for a real treat. If you have, you KNOW you're in for a treat.
- Click on the image for ordering information.