Monday, March 24, 2014

Inspiration from the Common Core Text Exemplars

When I first began studying the Common Core Standards, I was struck by the emphasis on text complexity. Every time I opened my book of English and Language Arts standards I paused when I came to that phrase: the one that set the expectation for students to "read and comprehend ... at the high end of the grades 4-5 text complexity band independently and proficiently."  What was a text complexity band?  How could I know if my students were reading appropriately complex text? I knew that many of the selections in the reading series I agreed to use to fidelity were not complex.  The Accelerated Reader reading levels that I labeled on all of my classroom library books didn't appear to indicate text complexity either: Captain Underpants and the Revolting Revenge of the Radioactive Robo-Boxers by Dav Pilkey is the same AR reading level as Neil Gaiman's (very adult and complex) American Gods.

Then I figured out that the CCSS ELA standards had appendices. And one of these, Appendix B, has a list of text exemplars.  That was where I would find an easy answer, right?  Not exactly - it takes perseverance to figure it out.  I've heard our district reading coaches and others say that the list is not to be used as a curriculum or required book list, but I knew I would need to have my students work with a variety of texts on the list so I could understand how they interacted with complex texts.  Hopefully I could learn from that until I was able to identify appropriately complex texts on my own.  I'm not there yet, but I'm making progress.

I started the year by putting together a Springpad notebook to keep my ideas for working with the 4-5 exemplars and link to the articles and poems that were available for free online. Then I wrote a grant proposal to our local education foundation, EXCEL, to fund copies of a few of the non-fiction books on the list.  All through the school year, I have been trying out ideas with these texts. I'm finding that the complexity is a big jump from the texts I used last year. Still, it is amazing the insights my kids have as they read this material. Here are three of the things we have done:
Celebrity endorsement from Mariah Carey
Bandwagon example (and she doesn't sit on babies)
The Kid's Guide to Money by Steve Otfinoski 
We're just finishing this one up in my reading switch group. Kids have worked to make a business plan and create advertising using information from the book as a guide.  My students also did some terrific persuasive writing and had a class debate over whether kids should be allowed to have credit cards.
"Casey at the Bat" by Ernest Lawrence Thayer 
This poem had a sample performance task from the Core Standards: "Students refer to the structural elements (e.g., verse, rhythm, meter) of Ernest Lawrence Thayer’s “Casey at the Bat” when analyzing the poem and contrasting the impact and differences of those elements to a prose summary of the poem." My students had a difficult time with the vocabulary of this poem. I found a nice text summary of the poem in this poetry unit from Pottsgrove School District in Pennsylvania. Even though they had a difficult time expressing exactly what it was that gave the poem a greater impact than the prose summary, my students had rich discussions around these texts.

“Fog” by Carl Sandburg and “Dust of Snow” by Robert Frost 
 I thought these two poems made for a nice comparison and contrast activity with my students.  Both evoke natural scenes of weather, but in very different ways.  First, I asked my students to look at the animal in each poem.  “Dust of Snow” describes the actions of a crow while “Fog” uses a cat as a metaphor for fog.  Next, students examined the rhyme and rhythm of the two poems.  After discussing, students wrote a paragraph comparing and contrasting the two poems. They noticed the metaphor in "Fog" right away and most of my students had a lot of success with this activity.
I would love to hear other ideas for working with the text exemplars list. Has anyone reached a high level of comfort in finding appropriately complex text?  Have you identified some outstanding excerpts from some of the longer texts on the list? I look forward to hearing your ideas.  And I'll keep you updated as I continue to experiment and refine...


Saturday, March 15, 2014

A new approach to math homework

Teaching math has been a challenge this year!  The Idaho Core Standards (CCSS) are a totally different animal than our previous Idaho Content Standards.  It feels like we're jumping at least one grade level worth of content and asking our kids to make more connections and solve more real problems than we ever have before.

It's terrific!

But it is tough.

Due to scheduling factors outside my control, our main math class is at the end of the day.  My kids are tired.  They also see mathematics as a somewhat passive activity.  Their thinking is "there is one right answer to each problem and someone will eventually explain how to find that answer."  They could get by with that attitude under our previous standards: but that won't fly now.

It feels like I tried a million different things for math homework. I sent home review computation, extra practice on our current topics, a few word problems, and work with our online math enrichment program. None of those ideas worked like I wanted. The review wasn't transferring, students weren't confident enough to succeed on their own with the current topics, life happened and homework wasn't done for the next day's class.

Then I read "Rethinking Homework" by Math Minds.  It was a revelation! Homework can encourage conversation about what we're doing in class.  I ask my students to explain their thinking to each other all the time.  Why shouldn't they build a home-school connection and explain mathematics to their parents, siblings, babysitters, and anyone else who can listen to them?

I made a form, put together a problem, and wrote this letter to send home:
Dear Parents/Guardians:

As you are already aware, we have been working with the new Idaho Core Standards this year. Although these new standards have changed my approach in all subjects, the biggest changes have been in math.  The Idaho Core Standards ask students to solve multi-step problems drawn from real world situations and to explain the strategies they used in finding an answer. 
To encourage my students to explain their thinking, I am trying a new type of math homework between now and spring break.  Instead of a nightly skill review page, I will send home a single problem like the one on the back of this page.  Each problem will list the some of the standards students will draw on to solve the problem.  In addition, there is a place for you to respond at the bottom of the page.  Since explaining strategies and understanding is key to success with the new standards, I would like your child to explain his/her thinking to you.  Explaining how he/she solved the problem to someone who may not be familiar with some of the strategies we’re using in class will encourage your child to clearly describe what he/she is doing.  After you have discussed this with your child, please mark a selection at the bottom of the page and sign it. 
Thanks for giving this a try!  Please let me know if you have any questions or comments. 
-Jim Windisch
I'm just two weeks and four assignments into this grand experiment.  I always give my students at least two nights to complete it.  A few of my students have come a long way in explaining how and why they chose strategies to solve problems.  Others have been able to teach their parents something new about math.  Some are struggling with this, but I am supporting them by encouraging them to stay in the struggle and occasionally being the adult to sign the form.

I like to think that it has opened up some more communication about school between my kids and their families.  I know I will be asking parents about it at conferences later this month. And I'll keep you updated as I continue to experiment and refine...