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    Then and Now: Encouraging All Students to Reach High

    By Julie Scullen
     | Jan 05, 2017

    ThinkstockPhotos-174530814_x300I went to a small high school in a really small town. The kind of town with only one traffic light. It blinked yellow, as if there wasn’t enough traffic to warrant a red. “They’ll close the zoo if the duck dies.”

    Really small.

    At the beginning of my senior year, I was called to the school counselor’s office because I had indicated on a survey I was going to college. I expected to get a big cheer from the counselor—a pep talk and a list of steps to take in the coming months. I was in the top 10% of my class, enrolled in all the high school courses colleges required, active in school activities, involved in every school play, first chair flute, and a voracious reader.

    Instead, he sat at his desk and gave me a sweet but patronizing smile.

    “Now, Julianne, are you sure this is the right choice for you?  You know, very few girls make it through college.” After a few beats, he asked me if I had a backup plan. Silently, I shook my head. I didn’t. I couldn’t tell you one thing he said after that, but I know the meeting was short. 

    My mind whirled. Did he know something I didn’t? Why was I not college material? The message I was getting at home was different—I was never asked if I was going to college, but where. I had never once entertained the idea of not going. He made me second-guess my goals, but only for a moment.

    Thank goodness I didn’t second-guess for long, as there was a lot to do and no Internet to help. 

    Supporting my own children through his process recently reminded me of that meeting and how different things are for high school students today. Our kids are surrounded by educational professionals willing to guide and support them, with so much information available it can be overwhelming.

    Thirty years ago, there was no Google, and everything was done by mail with paper, envelopes, and stamps. And that was only if you were interested in the school. Can you imagine? 

    There were no apps or websites for ACT or SAT preparation. We actually had to get practice tests from big, heavy books and then go back and score them on our own and find our own mistakes. 

    College applications weren’t filled out using online forms; we had to type them. Using a typewriter.

    If you weren’t prepared for college, there were no remedial courses to assist you. Intervention energy was concentrated on getting students a diploma, not prepping for college work.

    Earning college credit during high school was new, and very few students were able to take advantage of it. High school students had to actually travel to the college or university to attend class.

    I now have two children of my own in college. At their high school, no one fought about the best fertilizer for soybeans after school at the flagpole. In our community, we have many stoplights and more than one gas station and, thankfully, their college search was a completely different experience from my own.

    When they began to plan for college, they had incredible amounts of information at the click of a mouse—campus choices, programs offered, applications, financial aid, scholarships, all within reach at home or at school. There were programs designed with algorithms to help them find the perfect campus, major, and career goals. 

    Most important for my children and their classmates, no one ever told them their dreams weren’t possible. They were not asked if they had a back-up plan.

    May we never decide for a student he or she isn’t worthy of college—or any career path—because of his or her gender, race, religion, or any other reason. May no student ever lack support in reaching his or her goals.

    Julie Scullen is a former member of the ILA Board of Directors and also served as president of the Minnesota Reading Association and Minnesota Secondary Reading Interest Council. She taught most of her career in secondary reading intervention classrooms and now serves as Teaching and Learning Specialist for Secondary Reading in Anoka-Hennepin schools in Minnesota, working with teachers of all content areas to foster literacy achievement. She teaches graduate courses at Hamline University in St. Paul in literacy leadership and coaching, disciplinary literacy, critical literacy, and reading assessment and evaluation.


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    Using the Right Strategy at the Right Time

    By Julie Scullen
     | Nov 16, 2016
    Scullen 111616

    When I tie my shoes, I no longer say to myself, “OK, first make a bunny ear….” I never once took a quiz on the steps of shoe tying in order to prove I understood the bunny strategy.

    Literacy strategies should be just like that: Students are weaned off of them when they are no longer needed or when a particular strategy proves to be unnecessary, impractical, or ineffectual.

    Teachers are always on the lookout for the newest strategy to fix student literacy issues. Websites like Pinterest and Teachers Pay Teachers are full of strategy examples (unfortunately, many pilfered from the work of others and recycled with a new graphics) to distill the process of comprehension and understanding into an acronym. We can teach students to UNRAAVEL, RAP, UNWRAP, SCRIP, GIST, SOAPSTONE, THIEVES, SWBS, KWL, or SQ3R their text. These strategy acronyms are printed on posters, charts, and packets of worksheets. The hope is that if students memorize and follow all the steps in the acronym, “deep comprehension” (feel free to substitute other phrases like “fabulous writing” or “high-level thinking” as needed) will result.

    Consider lit circles. Although intended as a way to help students practice critical conversation about text through various lenses, lit circles can easily become packets of role sheets completed before a mechanical and disjointed conversation—a round robin exercise that is little more than having students read their role sheet aloud. The goal of academic conversation is lost because the completion of the role sheet is what students see as their focus.

    Don’t misunderstand, I think strategies have value.

    However, I worry that a hyper-focus on steps and acronyms distracts from the real purpose of teaching strategies, which is to give students a way to organize information in text and encourage deep thinking when necessary.

    Role sheets, acronyms, and posters are tools, meant to be temporary. The goal is to teach students to understand when a strategy would be helpful and give them options when they need to use them—and when they don’t.

    The bunny strategy for shoe tying might not work for everyone. My little brother learned it as “wrap it around the loop and push it through.” With my own kids, I found it easier to just buy them shoes with Velcro straps.

    Just as every student doesn’t need a reading strategy in every instance. Voracious readers who love to share their ideas do not need to be reminded to stop and annotate every new plot point to prepare for a small group conversation. In fact, stopping the flow of the reading becomes frustrating and cumbersome, doing more harm than good.

    Strategies and acronyms themselves can easily become the learning target instead of comprehension and understanding. Students are sometimes quizzed and tested on the acronyms, not the learning gained from the text. If you give a quiz or assignment to make sure students can label the parts of the strategy, you might be missing the point.

    Let’s look at a couple of examples where the assignment focused more on the parts of the strategy than on the actual learning students should be doing:

    Example 1: “Okay, students! For full credit, you need to find and annotate six examples of places where you visualized and four examples of places you made text-to-text connections. You also need to stop and make at least three predictions as you read your book independently.” What if these particular annotations don’t make sense with the students’ text? What if they get wrapped up in the reading and forget to stop?

    Example 2: “Good morning, learners! We have been talking about context clues. In your packet you need to show you can label what you have learned. Does each passage selection contain a definition/explanation clue, a contrast/antonym clue, or an inference/general clue?” Should the point of the lesson be to identify the clue correctly or to determine the meaning of the word based on the clues given?

    Strategies are meant to be temporary. They are meant to give students a way to organize their thinking, to support and nurture their success until the thinking process reaches automaticity. The goal is to teach students to understand when a strategy might increase their understanding and then allow them to use their chosen strategy flexibly, according to their task and need.

    Here’s my advice for deciding when to use a strategy in class:

    Be selective. Before you introduce a strategy, ask yourself the following questions: How many of your students need this type of strategy? Is it useful in other situations or disciplines? Is it for fiction or nonfiction? Is it too complicated or cumbersome?

    Be flexible. Make sure students know that some strategies will be more helpful to them than others in certain texts. Remind them they can choose what makes sense for them.

    Be careful. Strategies are intended as a means to an end. They are not the end.

    Julie Scullen is a former member of the ILA Board of Directors and also served as president of the Minnesota Reading Association and Minnesota Secondary Reading Interest Council. She taught most of her career in secondary reading intervention classrooms and now serves as Teaching and Learning Specialist for Secondary Reading in Anoka-Hennepin schools in Minnesota, working with teachers of all content areas to foster literacy achievement. She teaches graduate courses at Hamline University in St. Paul in literacy leadership and coaching, disciplinary literacy, critical literacy, and reading assessment and evaluation.


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    The Lighter Side of Survival

    By Julie Scullen
     | Oct 19, 2016

    ThinkstockPhotos-97430222_x300At our first department leader meeting this fall, I asked each person to share a one-word goal for the year. There were 14 people in the room, and three listed survival as their word. Their goal was to survive. One other said persevere and still another’s goal was serenity. Almost a third were thinking about their emotional needs and steeling themselves for what would come next. No one in the room was surprised; in fact several others said they had considered using the same word—survive—but weren’t brave enough to admit it to the group. There was a bit of nervous laughter, and we moved on to business. Teaching is a tough job, and getting tougher.

    Inspired by these teaching warriors and Shanna Peeples’ article in October’s Literacy Today, I starting asking teachers for their stories. What happened that influenced your day? What made you smile? What made you change direction?

    Hearing stories from the trenches helps us realize we’re not alone. Better yet, our students (and colleagues) might provide us with cause to laugh. I consider humor cheap therapy.

    Let me provide you with some cheap therapy.

    I was working alongside a dedicated, energetic secondary teacher. On this particular day we asked students to practice reading authentic online text and respond to what they had read. Engagement was high, keyboards were clicking purposefully, and we were feeling the rush of professional success and mentally high-fiving each other.

    One young lady who had been typically distracted and disengaged broke away from her response writing and motioned for my attention.

    “Hey, Reading Lady. Do I capitalize the ‘h’ in Hispanic right here?”

    I smiled, proud of her question. She was making such progress! “Yes, of course.”

    As I walked away, I heard her mutter to herself. “Duh. Of course I should. Hispanic is a pretty big religion!”

    End scene.

    A short time ago I was watching a phenomenal teacher perform a close reading lesson. She had the kids near her in a semicircle, each with a notebook and pencil. A few minutes into the lesson a young man popped up and headed to the pencil sharpener. He started sharpening…and sharpening and sharpening and sharpening and sharpening and sharpening—with occasional peeks to see if the lead was sharp enough yet.

    The teacher motioned for him to have a seat. Reluctantly and dramatically he dragged his feet back to his space.

    A moment later he popped up again, even more enthusiastically, and dashed to his chair. He dug through his backpack, tossing everything and leaving items strewn all over the floor, chair, and desk. Triumphantly he held up what he had been seeking: a small pencil sharpener.

    He smiled and skipped back to his place in the front of the room…and began sharpening. Sharpening and sharpening and sharpening and sharpening and sharpening…. The teacher, valiantly continuing to teach, walked to her desk and pulled out a pencil. She walked to him and gave him a meaningful stare as she handed him her pencil. He looked at it as she walked away, perplexed. Then his face lit up with blissful understanding, and he started sharpening her pencil.

    End scene.

    You can’t make this stuff up.

    To be fair, sometimes my colleagues provide me with cheap therapy as well. For instance, in recent years, I’ve helped to dispel many misconceptions regarding standards and testing. I’ve had conversations with colleagues referencing “formalative” assessment (as opposed to “summalative”). During curriculum writing, somone referred to our “new STRANDards.” One of my favorites is this: “What are we going to do about this CANNON Core?”

    We all need to seek out the lighter moments and collect stories from our schools to share. It’s a matter of survival.

    Do you have a good story? Share it with us on social media with #ClassroomTales.

    Julie Scullen is a former member of the ILA Board of Directors, and has also served as president of the Minnesota Reading Association and Minnesota Secondary Reading Interest Council. She taught most of her career in secondary reading intervention classrooms and now serves as Teaching and Learning Specialist for Secondary Reading in Anoka-Hennepin schools in Minnesota, working with teachers of all content areas to foster literacy achievement. She teaches graduate courses at Hamline University in St. Paul in literacy leadership and coaching, disciplinary literacy, critical literacy, and reading assessment and evaluation.



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    When the Scores Are Flat

    By Julie Scullen
     | Sep 21, 2016

    Julie Scullen 092116If you work in a school, you’ve had the conversation many times: The one where a group of dedicated and well-educated professionals sit in a room and look over the data, wondering why the test scores didn’t go up. Everything that could possibly have been done to raise test scores was done. “We tried everything!”

    • We explained to students the importance of the test, over and over again.
    • We shared individual scores with students and held goal-setting conferences throughout the year.
    • We talked about the test at every staff meeting. 
    • We taught students how to navigate online questions.
    • We modeled how to use all the special features of the online test format.
    • We asked our test questions throughout the year in the test format.
    • We provided practice tests.
    • We taught the students the academic language likely used in the test questions.
    • We modeled how to best answer multiple choice questions.
    • We had a pep fest, complete with a flash mob and inspirational video.
    • We provided a protein-packed breakfast to ensure students didn’t have rumbly tummies during test time.
    • We provided peppermint during the test to increase their brain activity.

    Still, our scores are flat. Level. Stagnant. How can this be?

    Do we need a new reading program? More interventions? Different interventions? Another incentive program? More professional development? Are we providing the wrong professional development?

    The focus on the test is missing the point. The best way to make our students better readers isn’t to teach them about how to answer multiple choice questions. The best way to make our students better readers is to make them readers.

    What if we ask the question, How often do our students read? Do we have them reading throughout the school day? Are they exposed to different types of texts? Are students expected to use what they have read to consider new perspectives, to solve problems, and to step outside themselves, or are they reading to complete a set of carefully worded multiple choice questions?

    Are there unopened textbooks in our classrooms with stiff bindings because we found it is easier to just tell the students what they would be reading instead of allowing them to read? Under the guise of getting through all the content, did we forget to let students read to discover for themselves? 

    If students roll their eyes and complain when they are asked to open a book, perhaps it isn’t entirely their fault. Do we give our students authentic reasons to read?  Do we model excitement for the insights we gain from reading?

    Our best schools make literacy everyone’s responsibility. Everyone reads. In every content area, teachers talk about the specialized text structures and other intricacies of their discipline. Students both read and write in every classroom. Having a “next read” is as important as having a current one. Students aren’t skimming to find the answers to fill-in-the-blank questions, they are reading deeply to compare, to synthesize, to form an argument, to create something new.

    The next time you are asked to take part in the conversation about stagnant scores, steer the conversation away from test prep and toward the outcome that is most important—making all students readers. Remind your colleagues that this is more important than any test score.

    Julie Scullen is a former member of the ILA Board of Directors, and has also served as president of the Minnesota Reading Association and Minnesota Secondary Reading Interest Council. She taught most of her career in secondary reading intervention classrooms and now serves as Teaching and Learning Specialist for Secondary Reading in Anoka-Hennepin schools in Minnesota, working with teachers of all content areas to foster literacy achievement. She teaches graduate courses at Hamline University in St. Paul in literacy leadership and coaching, disciplinary literacy, critical literacy, and reading assessment and evaluation.

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    Getting the Cold Hard Middle School Truth

    By Julie Scullen
     | Jun 15, 2016

    ThinkstockPhotos-78635418_x300Gosh, I love middle-schoolers. They are so. . .honest. Unquestionably honest.

    Last month I asked our middle-school students some very informal questions about their classroom and out-of-school reading. These kiddos were enrolled in a full-year reading intervention course for students not yet reaching grade-level reading goals. We wanted to use their responses to plan and prepare for the coming year. The teachers and I braced ourselves for the answers these highly honest adolescents would provide. 

    What I found out had me laughing—through tears.

    Finding research to support increasing student achievement in literacy by encouraging independent reading is not difficult. We know choice is important, we know making reading social is crucial to today’s kids, and we know making reading meaningful and authentic is vital to keeping them engaged. Seeing that our students prove our theories and research to be true is always gratifying.

    Our students advised us that the best place to find out about good books is to ask another student. Proof that for students, reading is social. They told us that they usually choose their next book on the basis of their favorite authors or the next book in a series. Unfortunately, “teacher suggestion” ranked almost equally with “chosen randomly from the shelf”. 

    I asked, “How can your teachers make reading more interesting and fun in the classroom? How can they make it something you want to do?” Some of my favorite responses were the most honest. Note that I kept their initial spelling and grammar intact, as it adds to the authenticity. They are quite revealing. 

    I don’t know, but the teachers could try and work some stuff into the lesson that kids like.  (If they only knew how hard we try to do just that!)

    Just give me good book about fallen angels and stuff like that or a book that people die in.

    Talk about sports. (This would create a very narrow curriculum, but we’ll consider it.)

    Let you read whatever you won’t. (I’m pretty sure this youngster meant whatever you want.)

    Don’t force a kid to read things they don’t want let them pick. (Also, don’t make them eat green vegetables or go to the dentist, right? But we get the point.)

    Give us more books to choose from. (Oh, my! How many of your teachers frequent used bookstores, book clubs, and garage sales looking for new selections? If it were up to us, every classroom would have new books to choose on the shelves every week.)

    There were many responses from students who wanted us to know they aspired to improve their world, and they wanted to read about genuine issues:

    If we read an article have it be a powerful one that people should care about, and if it’s a normal book then books that get your attention right away. I want to read about something I really care about.

    Many responses were reflective of current emphasis on testing:

    Let us just read instead of analyzing paragraphs!

    Actually let us independent read cause we don’t do that a lot

    Let me read and let me injoy the book and NOT think about how I fell(This darling student likely meant, “think about how I FEEL”.  He has a few spelling needs.)

    Then there were of course those few students who were hoping for sweeping change:

    Don’t look to see if I’m really reading.

    Give candy and don’t talk to us. Also, let us sit wherever we want.

    These connections with kids prove to me yet again that our future generations are savvy, smart, and want to make our world a better place.

    Overall, it should be noted I could easily separate their answers into categories.

    1. Give us a choice.
    2. Let us talk.
    3. Don’t give us worksheets.

    Your advice is noted, middle-schoolers. See you next fall!

    Julie Scullen is a former president of the Minnesota Reading Association and Minnesota Secondary Reading Interest Council and is a current member of the International Literacy Association Board of Directors. She taught most of her career in Secondary Reading Intervention classrooms and now serves as Teaching and Learning Specialist for Secondary Reading in Anoka-Hennepin schools in Minnesota, working with teachers of all content areas to foster literacy achievement. She teaches graduate courses at Hamline University in St. Paul in literacy leadership and coaching, as well as reading assessment and evaluation.

     
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