Saturday, May 17, 2014

Co-Teaching in Secondary Schools

Teachers co-planning, co-teaching in a grade 7 UGDSB classroom

Imagine a classroom, full of students with a variety of academic, social-emotional, and psychological needs. For many Applied level secondary classrooms in Ontario, this is the reality. Some have formal identifications, some do not.  Students are rarely removed from the classroom for extra support (in many cases, there simply isn't support available). Not only is inclusion of students with identifications the law in Ontario, it is also the morally right thing to do. Segregation of populations is rarely beneficial to anyone.  To encourage student success for all, co-teaching is an effective practice that not only creates a positive environment for student learning, but also promotes highly reflective educators who are engaged in improving their own practice.

Although focused on Minnesota schools, the ideas espoused in “Supporting co-teaching teams in high schools: Twenty research-based practices” (Nierengarten, 2013) apply in Ontario given the focus on integration of students into “regular” classrooms rather than in specialized, withdrawal settings. As an example of the similarities, both jurisdictions have passed legislation for inclusion, both require Individualized Educational Plans for identified students, and both focus on a collaborative approach to providing support for student success. Co-teaching as a strategy would focus on all students in the classroom, not just students who are formally identified, which is fully supported by the Ontario Ministry of Education’s idea of “good for some, great for all”. Co-teaching is defined as “two or more professionals delivering  substantive instruction to a diverse, or blended,    group of students in a single physical space” (Cook & Friend, as cited in Nierengarten, 2013).

At a recent conference, I was able to hear of a successful co-teaching project in Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board, which focused on Applied classes. They were able to create a sustained, supported program which embedded a co-teacher into classes to support the learners and the teacher with literacy. Many of the students were those with IEPs and this enabled the teachers to provide support in a timely and reasonable manner as opposed to having the students withdraw and access help via a resource room teacher. Much of the success of the KPRDSB program (and it wasn’t always successful) was due to careful planning, timetabling (to ensure common planning time), and the support of the administration (at the school and board level), all of which was supported in Neirengarten’s summary of the strategy. Another key part of the strategy is the use of peer coaching and observation between the co-teachers; since the teachers are focused on improving student success for students, they are working to constantly improve their practice through collaborative inquiry. Fundamental to improving outcomes for students with IEPs is ongoing support and professional learning. New technologies, new pedagogies and new understanding of adolescents (brain research continues to evolve our thinking about learning) is leading to exciting changes in secondary schools such as co-teaching.

Nierengarten, G., E.D.D. (2013). Supporting co-teaching teams in high schools: Twenty research-based practices. American Secondary Education, 42(1), 73-83. Retrieved from

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

How Can We Engage Parents/Guardians in Education?

Copyright Bhaskar Peddhapati

I cannot recall all of the conversation, but I recall freezing and not knowing what to say. In my first phone call home as a teacher, I was attempting to find out why Dylan was having trouble in class. I knew that Dylan had ADHD and was significantly behind in reading and writing (his IEP told me that, but unfortunately, not much else). He was struggling with everything: from academics to classroom behaviour to social interaction, nothing was going right in my grade 8 English class for Dylan. And I was stumped. I thought that calling home to talk to his parents would help - after all, I reasoned, they must know what works to help him calm down, focus, and get something done.  I called, explained Dylan's latest blow-up in class, and well, it turned ugly pretty quickly when mom asked, "What did you do to set him off?" 

I made some pretty big assumptions and errors in that phone call. Firstly, I really didn't have a plan; I assumed that all parents would offer some form of support for my travails and challenges as a teacher, completely neglecting the idea that a) they might not be supportive of me; b) they possibly wouldn't have strategies for helping me - after all, school and home are very different environments; and c) maybe I did "set him off". 

15 years later, I still reflect on that first experience as I continue to dislike phone calls home. Let's face it: most aren't for positive feedback. But, I did manage to work out a few key ideas for communicating with parents and guardians, whether it's in a phone call or a face-to-face conference.

What are the 5 most important criteria for communicating with parents/ guardians?

Kindness - start with something positive, or better yet, call home with good news. Be sure to offer some concrete examples of something that is going well in class. Clearly establish that you are trying to help Dylan or Susie succeed in your class. Avoid judgement statements while stating the problem: focus on the behaviour or the issue (which can be corrected).
Honesty - be honest about what's happening. The purpose of the phone call or conference is to ensure that everyone knows that Susie or Dylan is struggling and why. Don't speak in edu-babble, but outline what the problem is clearly and succinctly. Use specific, curriculum based examples if it's an academic issue. If it's a behavioural concern, reference the learning skills, and again, use specific examples. Ensure you know the student's IEP or history as outlined in the OSR.
Ask questions - if you are unsure of why a student might be struggling, try to determine what might be contributing to that issue. But, of course, there could be things happening at home that a parent or guardian simply may not want you to know. Hopefully, a kind approach and a focus on solutions will help create a positive relationship so that you might get more information. But, we can only go so far in our questioning. 
Offer solutions - explain what you intend to do, what you thing might be done by the student, and what supports the parents/guardians could offer for the student's success. Be sure to have specific next steps. Solicit their feedback to ensure that everyone understands what needs to happen in order for the student to be successful. Provide resources if possible.
Listen - most importantly, be sure to listen carefully to what is being said (and what isn't!). Be responsive to what the parents/guardians are expressing. Rephrase what you are hearing in order to clarify and summarize so that there is no misunderstanding. 

Have other suggestions? What would make your list of success criteria for effective communication with parents/ guardians? 

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

What Are the Elements of Good Professional Learning?

What characterizes a great learning experience for adult learners? It's not that different than what is great for students. Aside from the obvious - you cannot please everyone, all the time - there are a few key things that can be done to create an environment in which adults will want to learn. Luckily, educators and researchers like Michael Fullan, Thomas R. Guskey, John Hattie, and even the Ministry of Education (among many others!) have written extensively on engaging educators in their professional learning.
  1. Provide Choice: allow educators to "choose their own adventure". No one likes being told they have to do something, so forcing someone to participate in a new initiative isn't likely to yield results. Differentiate professional learning opportunities to appeal to your audience. Sessions need to range from ballroom delivery models with "experts" to job-embedded collaborative inquiry.
  2. Create a Professional, Respectful Environment: treat educators as the professionals they are. Have high expectations of staff, but honour their experience and knowledge. Build on it to help develop new knowledge and understanding. Invite teachers to reflect on their practice in a non-judgmental forum. Assume positive intentions.
  3. Foster a Growth Mindset: Use a strength-based approach (sometimes referred to as appreciative inquiry) to help educators identify what they do well and build from that strength. Foster positive mindsets in staff, especially if significant change is happening. See Carol Dweck's work on growth mindsets in students. The same assumption - that people have the ability to grow and learn - is true of our educators.
  4. Facilitate Discussions: Provide ample time for teachers to talk about what new learning they are experiencing. Let them learn from each other. Use protocols (such as those explained by the National School Reform Faculty) to structure these conversations and ensure that all voices are heard.
  5. Model Effective Practice: Demonstrate and model new strategies for teachers. Encourage them to engage in the activities and effective practices we would like to see replicated in our schools.
  6. Purpose/Audience: Make the purpose of the learning relevant, meaningful and authentic for the intended audience. Plan and communicate clear intended outcomes. Share the outcomes with participants. Everyone should know why they are participating in professional learning. Big ballroom sessions rarely lead to transformative change, but they can introduce new ideas to people. It's important to follow up with next steps. Guskey points out the importance of planning for intended outcomes:
    "...the first thing people need to do when they plan professional development is to specify what impact they want to have on student learning. They begin planning by asking, “What improvements in student learning do we want to attain and what evidence best reflects those improvements?” Then they step back and ask, “If that's the impact we want, what new policies or practices must be implemented to gain that impact?” Next, they consider what types of organizational support or change are needed to facilitate that implementation, and so forth. This planning process compels educators to plan not in terms of what they are going to do but in terms of what they want to accomplish with their students. All other decisions are then based on that fundamental premise.

"Know thy impact" 

John Hattie, through his comprehensive meta-analysis, tells us that there are many effective and ineffective teaching and learning practices. Hattie's research tells us that we "need to retain learning at the forefront and to consider teaching primarily in terms of its impact on student learning." (2011, 1). All educators (including those who deliver PD) need to recognize that their practices have impact on learning; further, all educators need to constantly question whether or not they are having positive impacts on learning.

“The teacher’s role is to change students from what they are to what we want them to be, what we want them to know and understand – and this of course highlights the moral purpose of education” (Hattie, 2012).
Fullan references "the moral purpose of raising the bar and closing the gap for all students" (2013, 3). Appealing to educators' motivation for teaching makes sense. Fullan also discusses how new technologies, new pedagogies, and what he calls "change knowledge" will help motivate staff to further their own learning:

"Change will become more enjoyable when it proffers experiences that are engaging, precise, and specific; high yield (good benefit relative to effort); higher order (stretching humans in creativity, problem solving and innovation); and collaborative for individual and collective benefit." (Fullan, 2013, 3).

And finally, while it might not seem important to everyone, good food and coffee help. If we are going to pull teachers from their classrooms to engage in their own learning, the least we can do is feed them!  


Fullan, M. (2013) Stratosphere: Integrating Technology, Pedagogy, and Change Knowledge. Toronto: Pearson.

Hattie, J. (2011). Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning. New York: Routledge.

Kreider, H. and S. Bouffard (Winter 2005/2006). "A Conversation with Thomas R. Guskey," The Evaluation Exchange: A Periodical on Emerging Strategies in EvaluationVolume XI, Number 4. Harvard Family Research Project.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

No Technology Without Good Pedagogy!

"Emergent technology use is different. It requires time spent deeply considering the instructional value added by new tools and time spent crafting instruction that puts content and instructional goals ahead of teaching the technology." (Kadjer, 2007, 216).
I often wonder how to best help teachers focus on effective pedagogy with technology.  Sara Kadjer writes about how to incorporate technology into the English classroom in meaningful, authentic ways through the use of blogs, wikis, podcasts, websites , and social media through the creation of artifacts like book trailers. Other authors (and a whole host of Tweeting educators!) concur. Catherine Imperatore points to research which confirms that "students feel a greater sense of ownership and pay greater attention to detail when they know that their work will be published online" (2009). 
New media tools - including social media - offer students opportunities to learn these new formats (which will be necessary for their futures, I believe), but they breathe new life into great pedagogy. There's a reason why book reports have been used for so long: it's a great way to summarize a book and provide one's opinion. But really, by the time adolescents hit high school, is the book report still necessary? Kadjer would suggest we use new tech tools and substitute the book trailer or have kids podcast their reports. 
"Teaching with technology in the English classroom is about always looking, whether it's seeing kids and the range of talents and literacies that they bring into our classrooms or it's seeing the possibilities in a new tool that allows me to amplify curricula for the better" (Kadjer 2007, 229).
Will Richardson's book, Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts and Other Powerful Webtools for Classrooms, is an indispensable tool for educators wanting to marry good pedagogy and technology in the classroom. There are umpteen edu-bloggers writing about the successful integration of technology and pedagogy.
Of course, there is also the need to teach the technology. Many teachers want to simply put the technology in the hands of kids and let them demonstrate their learning. I agree that some kids have the capacity to figure out the technology and use it to demonstrate their learning. But not all will be able to do this. Our students need direct instruction in how to use tech tools if they are going to demonstrate successfully their learning. I think that exploration of tech tools is a great thing and that students should be given opportunities to try different tools, even if the teacher doesn’t always know how to use that tool themselves. This is learning. However, I worry that teachers we sometimes ask students to demonstrate learning using a medium they don't know and we give an unfair advantage to some over others. Consider a situation where we ask students to demonstrate their learning in a video and then evaluate that video as evidence of learning. This can be problematic: did the teacher instruct about how to create a good video? What are the evaluation criteria? I worry that the slickest video will get high marks, even if it’s not based a deeper understanding. This isn’t necessarily a new problem — many students have learned how to create good looking posters or presentations, but the content was cut and pasted from the internet. 
I have been learning how to help teachers use technology to effectively assess and evaluate student work, promoting a deeper understanding of material. We need to ensure that teachers are giving students opportunities to demonstrate their learning in creative ways, using technology, but with guidance and feedback. I think it’s important to ensure that teachers understand things like the TPACK model in order to use tech mindfully. 

"As the literacies that kids bring into our classroom change (alongside the literacies that they need in order to be productive and competitive in the world outside of school), there is a very real pressure to make sure that what we teach is relevant and helps to push them to develop the skills to be self-directed, ubiquitous learners" (Kadjer, 2007, 229).
Today's students are pretty tech savvy; is your classroom tech savvy, too? Is your tech use pedagogically sound? 
Imperatore, C. (2009). "Wikis and Blogs: Your Keys to Student Collaboration and Engagement."
Kajder, Sarah. B. (2007). "Unleashing Potential with Emerging Technologies." Adolescent Literacy: Turning Promise into Practice. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. pp. 214-229.
Richardson, Will (2010). Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and Other Powerful Webtools for Classrooms. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

What Does it Mean to Understand?

Photo courtesy of Saad Faruque

Ellin Oliver Keene brings students to life in her writing: a seven year old, Jamika, prompted her book when she queried:
“All my life, there’s just one thing I don’t ever understand.  Y’all always say that – does this book make sense?  …  Ms. McKin, she say, ‘Jamika, does that book make sense to you, you feel like y’all are understanding that book, because you know the most important thing about books is they got to make sense to you.’ … But, none a y’all ever say what make sense mean.” (Keene, To Understand 2-3)

Ellin Oliver Keene's book, To Understand: New Horizons in Reading Comprehension, and  the chapter in Adolescent Literacy endeavour to explain the notion of "understanding" - or what it means to make sense - and the role this plays in education.  Keene offers a short, “graduate school” answer: “Jamika, comprehension occurs when the reader constructs meaning in a way that combines his or her schemata with the author’s intended message, deriving a unique interpretation” (To Understand 3). But, she also presents a more structured theory which she calls the "Dimensions of Understanding" that goes beyond simple interpretations of comprehension (that is, retelling, answering questions, learning new vocabulary, scoring well on a test, or completing a project).

The Dimensions of Understanding:
"When we understand we...
...concentrate intensively.
...dwell in ideas.
...struggle for insight.
...manipulate our own thoughts to understand more completely.
...explore as renaissance learners.
...discuss, engaging in rigorous discourse about ideas.
...create models to help us remember.
...feel because our experience is enriched when we have emotional connections." ("The Essence of Understanding", 35). 
Keene also highlights the role of metacognition in this process of understanding and stresses the importance of helping students find their inner voice to help them think as they work to understand ideas. The inclusion of student voices throughout her writing (much as Kylene Beers and Janet Allen consistently do), helps bring the texts to life, providing examples of the theory in practice. She also makes the important connection between student engagement and understanding, as she began her chapter in Adolescent Literacy with an anecdote where teachers were observing highly engaged students. Keene asks, "In our classrooms, do we create the kind of conditions (topics we explore, physical environment, assignments, materials, discussions) that promote these dimensions? ("The Essence of Understanding", 34).

Fundamental to Keene's thinking is the idea that all kids have immense intellectual potential.  Keene challenges educators to shift their “thinking about the depth and breadth of children’s thinking” and “understand how children’s capacity for thinking is nearly limitless if we create the learning conditions to support it, if we provide a language to define and describe thinking” (To Understand 245).  The argument seems fairly simple:  be clear about learning goals, have high expectations, and feed children’s innate curiosity to encourage deep, reflective, valued, engaged learning that is intrinsically motivated and therefore rewarding. It’s the epitome of “lifelong learning”, which many of us strive to engage in our learners. Of course, answering this challenge is the difficult part.  Keene’s texts provides detailed ways to achieve these goals, using the words of learners and educators alike.

To Understand builds on previous works (such as the dimensions presented in the chapter in Adolescent Literacy) and seeks to provide models for professionals to build a program for developing understanding. In the end, four main ideas stand out, all of which are supported by the Ontario Curriculum and Growing Success:

1. Focus on what’s important (What matters most?).
2. Use research-based teaching and learning strategies.
3. Teach essential concepts over a long period of time.
4. Give students numerous opportunities to apply these concepts.

I strongly recommend Keene's book to further explore the idea of understanding, especially as it develops the dimensions further and places them in a context of high expectations and life-long learning.

“This is a book about what it means to understand.  It is about how we use books and language to discover, alongside children, the power of the human intellect.  It is about focusing on what matters most in literacy teaching rather than teaching a little of this, a little of that, until we’ve squandered every opportunity for children to explore ideas in depth.  It is about learning from intellectual mentors whose lives provide insight and direction for a nation of young scholars.  This book is about capturing the essence of understanding and bringing it to life in our own and our children’s hearts and minds.  This book is about what it means to understand.” (To Understand 19)


Keene, Ellin Oliver (2008). To Understand:  New Horizons in Reading Comprehension.  Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Keene, Ellin Oliver (2007). "The Essence of Understanding." Adolescent Literacy: Turning Promise into Practice. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Diagnostic Assessments in Literacy

I have been working with a great group of teachers lately - our Section 23 teachers, who are responsible for programs which operate in non-traditional settings to service kids who are in group homes, expelled/suspended students, students in a residential rehab centre, etc.  Often, the students in these settings are with the staff for a short period of time and as such, the teachers need to quickly determine strengths, needs and next steps.
"...teachers in the school communicate with one another and with the administration to ensure, first, that literacy data gathering is both consistent across the school and/or board
and appropriate for the students’ literacy needs, and second, that assessment results are used on a school-wide and/or board-wide basis to help students achieve success in meeting the goals of the ... literacy program." (Ministry of Education, 2006).

We came together with the goal of creating common "intake" assessments in literacy, math, social-emotional health.  In literacy, we settled on a portfolio approach to a student's time in a given program: a student would complete a diagnostic assessment, complete some targeted work to either gain credits (perhaps ILC work, or school work sent from their "home" school) or to improve their literacy skills, and then the student would complete an exit assessment (which essentially is a repeat of the diagnostic to determine what changes had occurred). The portfolio of work would accompany the student as part of their transition to their next school.

The Ministry document, A Guide to Effective Literacy Instruction, Grades 4 to 6, Volume 2: Assessment outlines the key purpose of assessment in literacy:

"Assessment supports and furthers the broad goals of literacy instruction, which are to enable each student:
• to become a strategic reader, writer, and oral communicator;
• to expand thinking skills (including metacognitive and critical-literacy skills), developing the necessary habits of mind;
• to deepen the motivation to learn;
• to develop independence as a learner."

One of the key challenges for these teachers is determining the appropriate grade level of work to assign students - where to start! In order to provide appropriate academic supports, the teachers recognized the need to identify not only their academic strengths and weaknesses, but also their social-emotional well-being, likes and dislikes. For the literacy assessment, we decided to focus on a mix of formats (online, written, oral), the reading skills of fluency and comprehension, and a written paragraph response.

The Literacy Diagnostic Assessment/ In-take:

Step 1: Self-Administered Questionnaire

Google Form (pen and paper OR can be done on computer)
  • Rationale: to determine students' likes and dislikes in reading and writing; to determine what kind of computer skills a student possesses (students would need to log in to the UG Cloud to complete the task, although paper copies will also be available).

Step 2: Oral / One-on-One Conference

a) San Diego Quick Assessment of Reading Ability : test of fluency/ vocabulary out of context to quickly determine a suggested reading grade level. Plus, since it's a one-on-one conference,

b) Miscue Analysis - readings provided in Ontario Comprehension Assessment (OCA) Student Success, Grades 9 & 10 kits
  • The Student Success kit provides both an explanation and readings to help beginning teachers complete a miscue analysis. Starting with the grade level indicated by the SDQAR, teachers determine which grade level reading (between grades 4-10) to conduct the miscue analysis. Essentially, teachers are able to use a system of symbols to codify a reading as the student reads out loud. For more information, check out the video below (ignore the crazy dog pictures!):

Step 3: Independent Tasks

a) Reading Comprehension - OCA kits, Student Success (gr 4 to 8), gr. 9 & 10
  • Reading level Selections (Laminated, included in kit) assess pre-reading , during reading and after reading strategies. The skills assessed include making predictions, identifying main ideas/ supporting details, inference/ drawing conclusions, supporting an opinion, and metacognition.
  • The success criteria and rubrics are embedded in the test to help guide students. Exemplars provided by the publisher, Pearson, and moderated marking of practice tests is part of the training of teachers. 
Pearson's Explanation of the Kits: 
"This resource links assessment to explicit reading strategy and skills instruction. Fully aligned with Ontario's key literacy documents, this resource:
  • Provides feedback on student use of comprehension strategies identified in Think Literacy: Cross Curricular Approaches 7-12
  • Aligns with the Achievement Chart categories and Language Arts/ English curriculum
  • Aligns with the OSSLT by assessing literal thinking, inferential thinking and making connections
  • Links assessment with "next steps" instruction, including specific links to Literacy in Action 7 & 8
  • Helps teachers link assessment to explicit reading strategy and skills instruction"

b) Writing Tasks 
  • short prompts / questions (provide choice) for paragraph
  • holistic rubric (main idea, supporting details, use of conventions)

Exit Assessment

a) Re-administer Google Cloud questionnaire

b) Re-administer San Diego Quick Assessment of Reading Ability

c) Complete second OCA reading comprehension assessment

d) Write another paragraph

Next Steps:

The tools we opted to use are mostly Canadian and link particularly well to Think Literacy so that teachers have tools to address the needs of students. It is extremely important to include moderated marking of the OCA in the training of staff:

“When teachers work together to consider the work students have produced, or listen to their presentations or analyse their electronic projects and so on, they bring the collective wisdom of all the people in the group to the exercise. More eyes (and consequently more brains) result in more reliable determinations of what students understand.” (Earl in Teacher Moderation)

The rich conversations about what constitutes success at each level is extremely important for staff understanding of reading comprehension. Once our educators have had some time to work with the assessments, we will revise the process as necessary before sharing with other groups such as Essential level teachers.


Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat (2007). Teacher Moderation: Collaborative Assessment of Student Work. Capacity Building Series Monograph 2. 

Ontario Ministry of Education (2006). A Guide to Effective Literacy Instruction, Grades 4 to 6, Volume 2: Assessment. Toronto: Queen's Printer.

Ontario Ministry of Education (2006). A Guide to Effective Literacy Instruction, Grades 4 to 6, Volume 3: Planning and Classroom Management. Toronto: Queen's Printer.

Tovani, Chris (2004). Do I Really Have to Teach Reading? Content Comprehension Grades 6-12. Markham: Pembroke. pp 89-116.

Upper Grand DSB. (2003). Blueprint for Literacy: A Handbook of Effective Teaching Practices.

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Leadership in Literacy: Coaching in Secondary Schools as a Response to Professional Learning

EDHS Staff engaged in conversation on a fall PD Day

Do teachers have a moral obligation to engage in professional learning? Should schools have a moral and intellectual responsibility to learn from other schools and agencies and to contribute what they know to others?

Fundamentally, I would say that yes, teachers have an obligation to be engaged in their own learning – I would argue this is a measure what it means to be a “professional”; that is, rather than a moral obligation, teachers have a professional obligation to understand current pedagogy. I also believe that teachers need to be provided ample time, opportunity, and structures to allow for meaningful professional learning in order to share “effective practice”. School and board leaders have a responsibility to not only provide these opportunities, but also to cultivate a system culture that encourages learning for all – staff and students alike.

Framing the Problem for Secondary Schools in Ontario: “The Applied Strategy”

There is much concern about EQAO OSSLT data showing a widening gap in achievement between students in Academic classes and students in Applied classes, English as a Second Language/ English Language Development classes, and identified students.  The five-year trend shows that, despite best efforts to close the gap, only English Language Learners are showing some improvement.

Program of Study



Students with Special Needs (excl. gifted)


Board level data also reveal similar trends and therefore concern for achievement in Applied classes; in our school board, many students in our Applied classes do not experience the same levels of success as their Academic level counterparts. While many students in Applied classes gain credits, many of these students are achieving success at level 1 or 2, which means they enter College level classes at a disadvantage.

The Ministry of Education has explicitly expressed their concerns about course achievement data as well:
“2009-10 OnSIS data indicates that mark distribution and pass rates are not evenly and uniformly distribute between Academic and Applied course types. Students in Applied courses who failed courses with grades below 40% constituted 11% of the student population in these courses, while only 3% of students in the Academic course types received similar grades. Conversely, 38% of students in Academic course types had grades higher than 80%, while only 15% of those in Applied course types had a similarly successful outcome.”
School boards are to address the gap by creating an “Applied Strategy”.  So, what might improve adolescent literacy in Ontario’s secondary schools (especially for those not experiencing high levels of achievement)?  Some of the effective literacy practices, which I would argue, should be part of the “Applied Strategy”:

·      All staff need to identify as teachers of literacy.
·      Shared language and practices in a school (perhaps even school board) – for example, the use of a writing strategy for paragraphs that is named, visible, and taught by all staff.
·      Direct support for students who struggle – for example, through the use of assistive technologies, such as Google Read and Write; withdrawal for students who need extra one-on-one assistance; and scaffolded practices including shared and guided reading with appropriate texts.
·      Focus Professional Learning Communities in schools to address one or two school-wide or board-wide goals; use the Professional Learning Cycle (similar to the Teaching-Learning Critical Pathway in elementary) to plan, act, reflect and observe changes in practice that meet student needs
·      Use Literacy Coaches in secondary schools to develop a culture of learning and reflection for staff.  Literacy Coaches support staff to match the right instructional strategy with the right instructional material to support student success.

“When coaching is part of a coordinated and interdisciplinary literacy program, all of these educators can work together to create the real changes needed to support all struggling students.” (Egawa 296)

Literacy Coaching in Ontario Secondary Schools: Why and How

  • A respectful and collegial approach to professional learning: teachers are empowered to pursue their professional learning in a non-evaluative environment. Teachers are encouraged to be reflective of their own practice while being supportive of their colleagues in their learning. 
  • Teachers become metacognitive about their own content area reading practices, which in turn helps teachers more explicitly teach their students these strategies (Egawa 299). 
  • Coaches need to be highly knowledgeable of effective literacy and assessment practices, skillful in facilitating adults in learning and self-reflection (which includes the skills of listening and presenting), and able to effectively model practices in classrooms (which therefore includes the ability to easily connect with students) (Egawa 301).
Roland Barth’s research suggests that “the relationships among the adults in a school have a greater influence on the character and quality of that school and on student accomplishment than anything else.” (Egawa 300). Thus, the need for collegiality is paramount: administrators and teachers need to be lead learners in their building, willing to take risks and admit that they may not know the answer to something.

Teachers are encouraged to set meaningful goals – based on student needs – to expand their pedagogical knowledge. Teachers become engaged in job-embedded learning (the TLCP or PLCs): they are constantly collecting student data, analyzing it to determine next steps, researching best practices to close gaps, trying new ideas and then reflecting on the process. When teachers engage in this process in a collaborative inquiry, the learning can be even more impactful as best practice will spread across a school or a system.

Richard Allington’s work describes what he calls “Good teachers, effective teachers,” as those who “manage to produce better achievement regardless of which curriculum materials, pedagogical approach, or reading program is selected”. Allington further describes a few key practices of effective teachers, which he codifies as the 6 T’s:

·        TIME: About half of class time is dedicated to reading and writing. Extensive reading and extensive practice of reading strategies is imperative; instructional planning accounted for a scaffolded approach using guided and independent reading opportunities.
·        TEXTS: Appropriate texts are readily available. “Students need enormous quantities of successful reading to become independent, proficient readers.” Students need multiple opportunities to “perform with a high level of reading accuracy, fluency, and comprehension”; students need books that are appropriate to the level at which they read (not necessarily the grade level they are in). Students are motivated to read by success with texts they can read.
·        TEACH: Instruction is carefully planned and is direct. “Exemplary teachers routinely offered direct, explicit demonstrations of the cognitive strategies used by good readers when they read. In other words, they modeled the thinking that skilled readers engage while they attempt to decode a word, self-monitor for understanding, summarize while reading, or edit when composing.”
·        TALK: Students are provided multiple opportunities to talk – to other students, to teachers (and now, to others via the internet) – about reading. Talk is purposeful, structured, meaningful, varied, and relevant.
·        TASKS: Teachers focus on high-level thinking tasks which require student choice and are sustained projects over time. This is turn fostered student engagement with the material.
·        TEST: Achievement and grades are based on high-performance and a demonstration of growth rather than best performances getting the best grades. Teachers need to know their students and evaluate the growth of students based on clearly stated criteria (usually provided in a rubric).

Also significant to what Allington observed was the role of professional learning. Much of the district-wide learning and initiatives were not instrumental in the growth of these exemplary teachers. Instead, “most credited other exemplary teachers for supporting and encouraging them to become better teachers and to assume greater professional responsibility for the success of their students. These teachers seemed to understand that personal professional responsibility rested on the fact that they chose how to teach, what to teach, and with what sorts of curricular materials and tasks” (Allington). This self-direction in professional learning is fundamental to the culture of a school; staff need to be encouraged to experiment with instructional practices and assessment strategies to determine what will promote student success.

Similarly, school and system leaders need to foster system-level solutions to provide opportunities for professional learning.

Allington, Richard. 2002. “The Six Ts of Effective Elementary Literacy Instruction.” Reading Rockets.

Egawa, Kathryn. “Five Things You Need to Know About Literacy Coaching in Middle and High Schools.”  Adolescent Literacy: Turning Promise into Practice. Eds. Kyleene Beers, Robert E. Probst, Linda Rief. Pp 295-302.

Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat (June 2008). “Teaching-Learning Critical Pathway.” Capacity Building Series #6.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Word Nerds Unite! Vocabulary Instruction in Secondary Schools

"Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilization is decadent and our language — so the argument runs — must inevitably share in the general collapse. It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes. Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes."  ― George Orwell, Politics and the English Language

So wrote Orwell in 1946. Could you imagine what Orwell might say in the age of instant messages, text messages, emoticons, and Twitter? Actually, Orwell might have liked Twitter, as he argued for brevity, and careful use of the English language, as his 6 rules illustrate:

1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous. (Orwell, 1946)
Many teachers today lament the decline of the English language; but, as educators, are we prepared to take action? It's not enough to cringe at the sight of a misplaced apostrophe or the sound of a mispronounced word.  Just as I believe that every teacher is a teacher of reading, I believe that every teacher is a teacher of vocabulary.

An excellent American educator, author, and recent workshop presenter at the Reading for the Love of It Conference in Toronto, Janet Allen, has taken up the torch and is willing to shine a light on vocabulary instruction. Similar to Orwell, Allen recognizes that "language is power, and those who can use language effectively have an advantage over those who can't or don't" (2007, 102). Moreover, Allen argues that
"...our goal as educators has to include making sure students have access to the words for speaking and writing. This belief that we are teaching content for transfer's sake rather than content for content's sake will influence every instructional decision..." (2007, 102)
I've  always struggled with vocabulary building in the classroom; I'm often left wondering if my disjointed application of word games and strategies works, because, like Allen posits, I don't see the transfer of new words to students' vocabularies. Interestingly, I wonder if I was more successful in this transfer of skill outside of the English classroom: I'm thinking back to lessons in my Canadian Law classes when I spent considerable time helping students decode the language (which relies heavily on Latin). My students were able to integrate phrases like actus reus and mens rea into their vocabulary during the course; my hope is that when they see these phrases in news articles about Canadian criminal law, they'll recognize them. Allen confirms, for me, the idea that we have to include vocabulary comprehension in all subject areas: "Teaching vocabulary is teaching new labels for known or familiar concepts; teaching concepts is teaching students about something for which they currently have little or no understanding or familiarity" (Allen, 2007, 92).

What to do?

Allen suggests, in her workshop (and readings below),  four comprehensive vocabulary programs to help students build vocabulary, in all of their classes, regardless of subject (often, to prove her point, she uses science and history examples).

  1. foster word consciousness: for example, use word walls (and have students keep their own version in their notebooks); 
  2. teach individual words (aim for ~350 new words a year): take 5 minutes during class to teach "stopper" words, or words that student will struggle with
  3. teach strategies to learn new words independently: explicitly model how to use context clues -look for local context (inside the word with roots, prefixes, suffixes), brain/ background knowledge, use sentence context, and then global context (meaning everywhere else in the text).
  4. increase the amount of reading

These four practices are fairly straightforward and present a viable solution to Allen's (and Orwell's) assertion that "vocabulary instruction is at least one of those foundational practices that continues to fall short of meeting its goal: producing students who can read, write, and communicate effectively because they have access to a large reservoir of words" (Allen, 2007, 88). It is certainly possible to not only improve our vocabulary instruction in schools, but also to create the delight that comes from word play and the understanding of complex texts. Students love the playfulness that can be generated through word of the day challenges or word games at the start of a class.

Allen, J. (2014). "What gets in the Way of Success in Reading?" Workshop at Reading for the Love of It Conference. Feb. 20,     2014.
Allen, J. (2007). “Mastering the Art of Effective Vocabulary Instruction” Adolescent Literacy: Turning Promise into Practice. K. Beers, R.E. Probst, L. Rief, Eds. pp. 87-104.
Allen, J. (2000). Yellow Brick Roads: Shared and Guided Paths to Independent Reading 4-12Markham: Pembroke Publishers.
Allen, J. (1999). Words, words, words: Teaching vocabulary in grades 4-12. Markham: Pembroke Publishers.
Orwell, G. (1946). Politics and the English  Language. Access Feb. 26 

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Using Graphic Novels in the Classroom

Too many assumptions exist about graphic texts and comics; chief amongst them is the belief that the texts are low-level vocabulary and content which are best for reluctant readers. Many of today's graphic novels test that belief as they are rich, sophisticated texts which challenge readers intellectually, emotionally, and as readers.

J.B. Carter writes to clarify misconceptions around using graphic novels in the classroom - mainly that they are intended for younger audiences or only reluctant readers. Instead, Carter points out that they are complex, rich texts which need careful consideration for use in the classroom. And while yes, some reluctant readers and some boys might be more likely to read these texts (as suggested in the Ontario Ministry of Education's Me Read? And How!), graphic novels are an "art form" which have appeal to a multitude of readers. Likewise, Teri Lesesne suggests that the graphic element is especially appealing to teens, as evidenced by the fact that there is a wealth of titles in Young Adult literature (65). Both point out that graphic texts - like all texts - need to be seamlessly integrated into classrooms in appropriate contexts.

Carter cites the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and the "need for authentic reading and writing experiences, textual investigations that help bridge the gap between the school world and the lived world, between narrow notions of what it means to be literate and broad notions of what it means to actually succeed as an intelligent adult in contemporary society." Graphic texts may do this for some audiences. But, as with any text, appropriate selection and instruction must occur. Many students - especially reluctant readers - have little experience with the complex conventions and themes of many graphic novels. Lesesne argues that the "visual scaffolds are the hook they need to enjoy the reading experince" (67),  acting as an entry point to explicit instruction in visual and/or media literacy. Schwartz is cited by Lesesne:
"Graphic novels offer value, variety, and a new medium for literacy that acknowledges the impact of visuals. These novels appearl to young people, are useful across the curriculum, and offer diverse alternatives to traditional texts as well as other media." (67)
Teachers must choose texts based on their students' readiness, appropriateness of content for the curriculum and the school community. I particularly like using graphic novels in Literature Circles, especially in other subject areas such as Native Studies (especially the senior courses). After students are introduced to the conventions of the text and the format of Lit Circles, they are free to read the text in order to understand the deeper meaning of the text. In Native Studies, this is especially useful for exploring sensitive topics which better deserve an emotional or personalized approach, such as residential schooling. Students respond to the graphics as well as the stories on an emotional as well as an intellectual level, which is an important component of the issues around residential schools.

Graphic Novels to explore Native Studies (click on the links for video book trailers):

Brown, C. (2003). Louis Riel: A Comic Strip Biography. Drawn and Quarterly.

Dembicki, M., Editor. (2010). Trickster: Native American Tales. Fulcrum Publishing.

Hill, G. (2010). The 500 Years of Resistance Comic Book. Arsenal Pulp Press.

Robertson, D. A. & S.B. Henderson. (2012). 7 Generations: A Plains Cree Saga, Winnipeg: Highwater Press.

Robertson, D. A. & S.B. Henderson. (2012). Sugar Falls: A Residential School Story. Winnipeg: Highwater Press.

Robertson, D. A. The Life of Helen Betty Osborne: A Graphic Novel. Winnipeg: Highwater Press.

Wright-McLeod, B. (2011). Red Power. Fifth House Publishers.

Photo of excerpt from 7 Generations courtesy Portage & Main Press


Carter, J.B. (March 2009). “Going Graphic.” Educational Leadership. Vol. 66. No. 6. pp. 68-73.

Lesesne, T.S. (2007). “Of Times, Teens, and Books.” Adolescent Literacy: Turning Promise into Practice. K. Beers, R.E. Probst, L. Rief, Eds.  pp. 61-79.

Ontario Ministry of Education. (2009). Me Read? And How! Ontario teachers report on how to improve boys’ literacy skills. Queen's Printer for Ontario.