Saturday, November 8, 2014

Communicating with Our Students

My school has started a new initiative to look at how we set and discuss goals with our students. We spent time exploring John Hattie's Visible Learning website and are basing our next steps off his work. Hattie notes that what he calls "student reported grades", or as the website describes, "strategy involves the teacher finding out what are the student’s expectations and pushing the learner to exceed these expectations. Once a student has performed at a level that is beyond their own expectations, he or she gains confidence in his or her learning ability." To keep it simply we're calling it goal setting in our building.

I immediately decided I wanted to start goal setting with my fourth grade reading group. There are four students in the group, all of whom speak English as their second language. They are all reading about a year below grade level, and we are using the Leveled Literacy Intervention (LLI) for our guided reading work. We meet four times a week, so we're doing about as much reading as we can.

On Thursday I gave the four of them a sheet which asked them to identify what they do well as readers and then what they want to get better at. On the back of the sheet I had a list of reading strategies for both decoding and comprehension so really all they needed to do was read the list and copy something.

When I introduced this they looked at me like I had three heads. One student immediately wrote "being lazy" under the question that asked him to say what he was good at as a reader. At least he was honest? Realizing this wasn't going as I thought it would we went over the list of reading strategies together and talked about what they each do as readers. They still sat and stared at me. I hadn't planned for this to take more than five minutes and now I was watching that my thirty minute reading block wash away. I made one of those teacher decisions that you can't take back once it is out there. I told them I didn't care if it took the whole reading block- we were going to fill out this sheet.

Finally one after another picked up the pencil and begrudgingly started to write. They wrote, and at least two of them were honest, although not detailed. None of them identified strengths that I would have given them, and none of them identified the same areas of improvement that I would have identified for them. One just copied randomly from the list (OK, that's what I would have done as a kid) and the other absolutely refused. "I'm not good at anything with reading" he kept saying as though this was a fact I couldn't argue with. "And I have to get better at all of it."
The others watched my face as he said this and I could tell he was speaking for all of them. Why bother to identify what they were good at if they didn't feel good at any of it?

The whole incident forced me to reflect on the group and my teaching. What kind of teacher was I being if these kids couldn't even tell me what their strengths were in reading? We get through the lessons, I push fast, I take a running record on at least one of them each time, I take data for their IEP goals and I note their progress. I could tell you about each one of their strengths and weaknesses, but apparently I hadn't told them. Or if I had, they hadn't believed me. On paper I was being a great teacher, but in reality these fourth graders showed up every day to get a new book, but were they really improving their reading? If they are improving their reading but don't realize how they are doing it, does it even matter?

I immediately changed the feedback I was giving them as readers. In the time I managed to salvage from the end of the group I explained exactly what I noticed on their running records. I labeled their strengths, and made them record those strengths on their goal papers. Then I tried to be clear with what I wanted them to do on their next read.

Next week I am determined to spend more time giving them specific feedback about their reading. I want them to own their reading skills, and I want them to feel like making progress in reading is achievable. I want them to understand the individual steps needed to get to the next step and be able to articulate how they will get there. I want them to feel ownership of their work, and to take pride in the work they do in reading each day.

We can do hard things, even when reading is one of them.

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