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    Looking for Quick, Everyday Writing Practice for Students? Try Parachute Writing!

    By Rebecca G. Harper
     | Oct 04, 2021
    students writing

    Organization, neatness, and structure have never come naturally to me. I will be the first to admit that I am one of the least organized people you will ever meet. My to-do list rarely gets finished; I have a desktop that is a mosaic of mismatched files and downloads; my office is cluttered with books, sticky notes, and notecards; and don’t even get me started on my closet. Perhaps my penchant for clutter, chaos, and disarray is why I have such a love for writing and teaching it.

    Writing is messy

    You see, real, honest, authentic writing is messy. Real writing is that early morning, just-out-of-bed look—not the “I’m ready for my close up,” pretend this is how I look at 5:00 a.m., Instagram post–worthy version. Nah. Real, authentic writing does not just emerge polished and ready to publish. Instead, it often requires practice and work. To quote Dolly Parton in Steel Magnolias, “It takes some effort to look like this!” and writing is no different. It is a unique process, complicated and non-linear. Recursive and dynamic. The writing process is organized chaos. Fragments falling. Sentence puzzles taken apart and put back together. Words omitted. Words added. There is no one right way to write. And this is why I love it.

    And this is why students need to write often and for a variety of purposes: They need practice. Authentic writing is rarely formulaic, neatly contained, and boxed in. It can’t be reduced to a clever acronym where students fill in the blanks and respond, and it certainly isn’t something that we can race to complete. Because real writing looks messy, it requires deliberate planning and purpose, strategic thinking and decision making, and careful consideration and awareness of audience and purpose. Plus, writing often and for a variety of purposes not only helps students become better writers but also aids in their development as readers.

    The only way that students will get better at writing is by writing. Writing engagements can be used in any content classroom, at any time, and with any audience. Regardless of a student’s reading or writing skills or level, there is some type of writing that they can do daily.

    Parachute Writings

    I use the term Parachute Writings (PWs) to describe quick writing opportunities that can be easily deployed in the classroom. PWs can be dropped into just about any lesson and require limited up front preparation.

    Just like parachutes prevent skydivers from crashing into the ground, PWs offer an element of safety for students. They are quick, low stakes, and flexible, which provides students the opportunity to practice multiple writing skills for a variety of purposes and audiences in short bursts.

    PWs can be conducted with a partner or in a group setting, which offers another level of safety. Think about real skydivers: Before they attempt a solo jump, they take part in tandem jumps as part of their learning and training. Writing is no different. Building confidence in writing often is achieved through collaborative exercises and peer engagements.

    PWs can be dropped into lessons at multiple points in your teaching on a frequent, daily basis; however, you need to be mindful about when the writing should be deployed and where. Although versatile and flexible, there is a specific element of purposeful implementation when using PWs. When planning PWs and adding them into lessons, it is helpful to consider the overall objectives and goals of the lesson.

    Here are some easy PWs that you might try in your own teaching.

    • Drop Drafts are great PWs that can be used at any point in a lesson. Have students stop what they are doing and write for a minute or so (this can be in the form of a prompt or question posed by the teacher or other writing task). Remind students that this writing is only going to be seen by them so they will be more likely to write truthfully and freely. After the students finish their Drop Draft, have them crumble up their papers and “drop” them in the trash on the way out the door. Because this PW is not graded or read by peers, it can be used not only for clarification or understanding of content but also for sensitive, non-academic issues.
    • Quick writes (QWs) are some of the easiest PWs because they can take on multiple forms with the click of a pen. In a flash, QWs can transform into a whole different writing engagement based on the context and purpose of the lesson. These quick bursts of writing are often shared with peers or extended later into more developed pieces of writing. Plus, quick writes offer students the ability to read and respond to a variety of texts using any number of activator questions or thinking prompts.

      Easy QWs might involve a small excerpt of text such as song lyrics, a short passage from a novel, or a poem. You might ask students to write about what the piece reminds them of, have them borrow a line from the writing, or pick out words they like. You can also use images, movie clips, and objects for QWs. For example, one summer I used slices of watermelon as a descriptive writing QW for my students. QWs are great not only for daily writing but also for extension opportunities. If students connect with a particular QW, they can choose to extend it to a more developed piece later.
    • Hear This is a strategy that works extremely well with listening and speaking lessons, highly descriptive texts, or concepts that require students to visualize material. An easy way to incorporate this type of writing is in tandem with highly descriptive material. As the text is read aloud to the students, they draw what they hear, thus creating a physical visual of the material. After students have created this visual accompaniment to the read-aloud text, have them add words from the text on sticky address labels or sticky notes and affix them to the drawing. This is a great way to teach not only listening comprehension and visualization but also textual evidence.

    Regardless of the subject area or grade level, offering students multiple opportunities to write helps them grow into strong, confident writers. Try deploying one of these Parachute Writing activities into your lessons and watch your students soar.

    Interested in reading about more high-interest, engaging ways to get students to write? Pick up a copy of Write Now and Write On: 37 Strategies for Authentic Daily Writing in Every Content Area to learn more about easy-to-implement writing ideas for students.

    ILA member Rebecca G. Harper is an associate professor of literacy at Augusta University, Georgia. She serves as an invited speaker and keynote presenter for a variety of literacy conferences and delivers literacy professional development sessions across the United States. Her research interests include sociocultural theory, critical literacy, and content and disciplinary literacy. She resides in Aiken, SC, with her husband, Will, and children, Amelia, Macy Belle, and Vin. You can follow her on Twitter and on Instagram.

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    Effective Instructional Practices: Go Big But Go Small, Too!

    By Mark Weakland
     | Sep 13, 2021
    EffectiveInstructionalPractices_680w

    Instructional practices are all about how we teach students. Recently, while perusing the pages of the International Literacy Association’s Instructional Practices online resource, I was struck by the expansiveness of the listed methods: project based learning, student engagement through classroom libraries, collaborations between schools and the communities, and many others. To these powerful “big picture” practices, however, I would add a number of small, hour-by-hour instructional techniques educators can use to produce greater gains in student learning, especially for those who struggle to read, write, and spell. Here are three.

    Wait time (think time)

    Wait time is a technique that engages students, promotes language use, builds background knowledge, and increases comprehension. When students are given time to think before answering, their brains have time to more deeply and completely process questions and directions, recall facts and figures, and synthesize information.

    At its core, the technique involves asking a question or requesting an action and then requiring students to think silently for a period of time before raising their hands to answer or before turning to talk to a partner. Three seconds of wait time is appropriate for the short attention spans of pre-K and kindergarten students. Increase the time to five seconds for 1st and 2nd graders. For older students, give six or seven seconds. The general behavior of different groups may call for more or less think time. Also, vary the amount of time depending upon the task. Students will need more time when a question calls for a more complex answer.

    Direct and explicit instruction

    When presenting critical literacy elements, from phonic patterns and vocabulary word definitions to comprehension strategies, be direct and explicit in your teaching. In other words, take the shortest paths possible to learning. For example, when I first present information on letter sounds, spelling patterns, and vocabulary words, I do my best to avoid asking students questions such as “Who knows what sound this letter makes?” and “Does anyone know what this word means?” Likewise, I steer clear of doing a discovery activity. Instead, the first thing I do is directly and explicitly tell students what I want them to know, see, or do. Why? Because it doesn’t harm anyone, and it greatly helps students who are at risk of reading difficulties.

    Researchers and clinicians have been pointing out the power of direct and explicit instruction for years. The technique—which is easy to use, time efficient, and highly effective in getting kids to initially learn basic information—often involves specifically telling students what you want them to learn, explicitly modeling actions, and having students immediately repeat the information and actions with you and then to you.

    This is not to say exploration, construction, and discovery should be tossed in the dumpster. The human mind is built for exploring and constructing, and so having students discover spelling patterns and make inferences based on text clues are instructionally valuable things to do. Nonetheless, I typically begin with direct and explicit instruction. Why?  First, to be as efficient as possible. Second, to minimize the possibility that incorrect learning will occur. And third, to support students who need it. Later, once my at-risk learners have developed some foundational knowledge, I bring in differentiated exploration and discovery activities.

    Repetition and distributed practice

    It pays to assume that some students will need many exposures to master skills and remember information. This is especially true for children who have or may have a reading difficulty such as dyslexia. As Dr. Richard Gentry writes, one way to easily support children with dyslexia is to “embrace repetition” in their instruction “because the brain ‘loves’ repetition for developing automaticity in almost every skill.”

    Effectively using repetition means more than repeating words and sentences over and over again. Rather, it is giving learners multiple chances to actively practice skills in multiple ways. To program for the number of exposures some students need, think in terms of differentiation, gradual release, and multi-modal presentations.

    It helps to think of repetition as something other than mindless drills. Rather, consider it a discipline that leads to competence and freedom.  As a musician, I know my repeated practicing of scales and rhythms lets me to have fun later on at a gig, where I can then improvise during a jazz tune or effortlessly read a musical score. In the realm of writing, students benefit from repeatedly practicing skills, including word spellings, grammatical rules, and text organization, all of which lay the foundation for crafting pieces that engage, inform, and entertain readers. Meanwhile, in the area of reading, skill repetition leads to reading fluency (accuracy, rate, and prosody), which in turn leads to greater comprehension.

    Repeated practice should never be mindless and doesn’t have to be boring. For example, make skill practice more engaging by distributing it in small amounts over the course of the day rather than in monolithic blocks. Likewise, make the repetition of spelling-phonic patterns more interesting by presenting them in a variety of ways: in flip books that can be read, in word ladders that can be written on white boards, and on tiles that can be physically manipulated to make words.

    Conclusion

    When used hour-by-hour and day-after-day, small but powerful instructional practices (teaching techniques) can complement large-scale ones. The end goal of all effective practices is the same: increased student achievement and happiness.

     

    Learn more from Mark Weakland by registering the on-demand recording of his ILA Webinar “Preventing and Overcoming Reading Difficulties, Pre-K–3,” sponsored by Corwin.

    Mark's book How to Prevent Reading Difficulties is available to buy now from Corwin. Use coupon code ILA2021 during checkout for 25% off and free shipping on this book when you purchase at Corwin.com by October 1, 2021.

    ILA member Mark Weakland is an author, consultant, teacher, and musician. He is the creator of teacher resource books, award-winning music projects, and almost 80 books for children. Follow Mark on Twitter at @MarkWeakland.

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    Learning Academic Vocabulary Through Lunchtime Chats, Hands-On Activities, and Complex Texts

    By Jami Witherell
     | Sep 09, 2021
    Students at lunch

    I started sharing lunch outside on the playground with my students when we returned to in-person learning last spring. We had the best conversations. It was an unexpected gift of the pandemic. One day one of my second graders asked me to share some important words. “You know, big ones, like esophagus or large intestine,” he said.

    “Hmm,” I wondered loudly, making a point to show I was really thinking. “Like maybe bolus or villi?” I answered, smiling.

    “Yeah, but like ones we don’t know,” he replied grinning.

    Practicing Academic Vocabulary and Building Knowledge

    The reason esophagus and large intestine came up in our lunch conversation was because of a unit in our English language arts curriculum focused on the driving question, “How does food nourish us?” Students began their study of food by building knowledge about digestion.

    The student who asked me to introduce some big words over lunch is learning multiple languages and was acquiring some seriously scientific language and background knowledge through our texts and writing tasks. These are words that students don’t use daily: esophagus, nutrients, digestive system. By the end of this unit, I wanted every student, including the multilingual students who needed extra support with academic vocabulary, to feel successful in their understanding of the digestive system and in reading complex texts.

    It’s a challenging task for students who may not already know a lot about the digestive system. And it is even more challenging for students learning English and acquiring the vocabulary to accurately describe what happens in the digestion process, a process they cannot actually see.

    Education researcher Susan B. Neuman wrote in her article “Comprehension in Disguise: The Role of Knowledge in Children’s Learning“ that comprehension of a text requires that students bring what they already know, or background knowledge, to what they want to learn.

    As a classroom teacher, I wanted to provide a hands-on experience to my students to help solidify the knowledge they were building in class.

    Hands-on Learning through a room transformation

    The solution I came up with was to transform the classroom for a day and allow students to experience the inside of the digestive system to deepen their understanding of how it works. I collaborated with my grade-level team to create four stations that students could visit: the mouth, the esophagus, the stomach, and the small intestine. I loved that it provided all learners an opportunity to apply new and more technical vocabulary(esophagus,digest) with words they already knew (mouth, stomach).

    At each station, students learned essential vocabulary, such as system, digest, absorb, and saliva. They would need to know these words for conversations at each station and for their writing. Then, students used specialized topic-specific words—like the word bolus at the esophagus station and villi at the stomach—necessary to complete the different tasks and activities at each station.

    At the esophagus station, for example, students labeled the parts of the digestive system on a diagram. After students created food in the first station, they delivered their food to the esophagus station. Here students took the food and rolled it into a bolus or a ball that would fit down the esophagus (a cardboard tube).

    The third station took students to the stomach, where they experimented with a piece of bread and a plastic bag of vinegar to represent how the stomach breaks down food. The students acted as the stomach muscles to break down the bread. Finally, students used a marble run to create a physical representation of the small intestine. They designed the interlocking pieces and then ran a piece of food, represented by a marble, through the system.

    On the day we transformed the room, I spent my time at the mouth and esophagus stations, helping the modeling clay food travel from one station to the next, engaging in conversations, supporting students with vocabulary when needed, but most important, listening. I discovered students used academic language during deep and meaningful discussions about the workings of each station.

    As you might imagine, this hands-on learning was a lot of fun for the students. But what did it have to do with English?

    Rooting it all in literacy

    For one, my students had to expertly capture the steps of the digestive system’s process—both in speaking and in writing. All students ended the lesson by talking about their experiences at each station and what they would write in their final piece. All students completed the writing, and all learners were able to participate and feel successful in the experience and in their writing. They also had plenty of time to improve their reading skills at each station.

    And at every step, they added to their base of knowledge. Students were not only more prepared to answer the question “How can food nourish our body?” but also able to explain the steps in a process, which set them up for success later when we studied the way certain foods travel from farms to our dining rooms.

    Room transformations are a great reminder that students can have fun while building essential knowledge. Adding vocabulary practice ensured that the words and the experiences won’t soon be forgotten and are transferable to their writing.

    Remember where we started, out at that picnic table? We ended up making “Lunch With Language” a regular thing, and it’s something I hope to bring back this coming school year. Mixing casual conversation with emerging vocabulary is fun for students, and that should be an important goal in its own right for every school coming out of the pandemic.

    ILA member Jami Witherell is a second-grade teacher at Newton School, a public elementary school in Greenfield, MA. She is also a Massachusetts Teacher of the Year 2022 semi-finalist and a seasonal associate with Wit & Wisdom, published by Great Minds. In that role, Witherell provides professional development to teachers using the ELA curriculum. Her room transformation was brought to life with the support of DonorsChoose.org and was named one of the top 5 wackiest requests of the 2020–21 school year by the organization. Follow her on Twitter at@ms_witherell.

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    The Freedom of Literacy

    By Trenèe Chimère Lurry
     | Aug 05, 2021
    FreedomOfLiteracy_680w

    Literacy opens the door and opportunity to freedom—to engage in a world separate from the one in which you reside. If you allow yourself to enter, your options are endless. Frederick Douglass said, “Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.” Literacy offers that opportunity. It opens a door to freedom that can be conceived only once it is obtained.

    However, lacking in this ability connects to a prison of the mind, a prison that holds many of our Black and Brown children hostage, and a prison that can prevent all students from experiencing the joy that we know literacy can bring to their lives.

    Teaching to dream

    Finding the joy in literacy requires the ability to dream. We know our students come with many different needs and differences. But the ability to dream should be afforded to everyone regardless of skill level or ability. A dream is a cherished ambition, aspiration, or ideal.

    As educators, we must believe for our students what they sometimes do not believe for themselves. Your dreams for your students’ achievements and expectations go hand in hand and can open the door for a reality that can supersede your greatest expectations. Having great aspirations for your students will increase their desire to reach them.

    Research has proven that high expectations improve performance. What you believe about your students can be a motivating factor in or a deterrent to their progress. You may see scores you don’t like or a curriculum that does not support your aspirations for your students. But I urge you: Do not allow your eyes or your present reality to deter your dreams. Believe what can be. Help your students by allowing them the freedom to dream. Let the dreams that you have become the goals that you set. Communicate the dreams you have about your students to them so they know you believe. Make your dreams visible so students can see them. Display vision boards so students can connect with what you envision.

    Help make dreams become reality. Push for necessary changes to curriculum. Do not let policies stifle the possibilities that are endless when dreams and high expectations collide.

    Time for change

    I can speak confidently because of my special education background. I have seen students find their joy in literacy. For eight years, I was immersed in it. I taught high school life skills. My struggle daily was having to use a reading program that lacked both a focus on phonemic awareness and texts that were grade-level appropriate. Students’ reading levels were between first and fourth grade but their ages were 14–21.

    Once my district found a program that concentrated on phonics, as well as grade-level culturally responsive texts with diverse representation and relevant topics, dreams became realities. I saw Lexile levels soar 30 to 50 points in three months. Confidence that I never saw before in the eyes of my students appeared, and I saw the doors of opportunity and possibility open, and areas of darkness become lightened.

    Opportunities were on the horizon for my students. That same possibility can exist for more students if we just begin to shift the narrative and change our perspective. I never stopped dreaming no matter what my reality was. Because of that, I firmly believe that all students can walk in freedom and the joy of literacy.  

    Trenèe Chimère Lurry has been a special education teacher for the past eight years. She is a firm believer that representation matters and there is a greater need for it in our schools. This led her to pursue her master’s in educational leadership, which she completed in May 2021.

    This post is a companion piece to the July/August/September issue of Literacy Today, ILA’s member magazine, which focuses on the theme of Joy in Literacy Instruction.

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    The Literacy Teacher Edit, Part 2

    By Katie Caprino
     | Jul 26, 2021
    kids at classroom library

    A fan of Netflix’s Get Organized With The Home Edit, I immediately thought about connections to literacy instruction. In Part 1 of this blog series, I discussed THE connections to writing. In this blog post, I share ideas about how to apply THE method to cultivating resources.

    The Library Edit 

    Here is how I recommend applying THE to curating your face-to-face or virtual classroom library.

    Edit: Take stock of the texts available to your students by asking the following questions:  

    • What topics are present and not present? 
    • What types of genres are present and not present? 
    • What student reading abilities can or cannot access these texts?  
    • In what media are books available and which are not available?  
    • Whose voices are present and whose are not present?  
    • What settings are present and not present? 
    • What cultures are present and not present? 
    • What perspectives are present and not present? 
    • What abilities are present and not present? 
    • What makes sense in terms of different (physical, virtual, or both) piles? How should books be organized (e.g., by spine colors, levels, genres, topics)? 
    • What organizational products (e.g., bins, shelves, virtual libraries, lists) work for my readers? 

    Depending on your students’ ages, you could have students edit their at-home libraries at the same time you edit the class library. Teachers of students working remotely can learn a lot about book access and the types of books that are more accessible than others. Consider what books need to be added to your library and which should be donated or be stored elsewhere.  

    Assembly: In this step, you put together your classroom library according to the structure determined in the editing phase. You may put physical books on particular shelves that make sense for students’ heights. Virtual libraries can be assembled on Google slides in ways that maximize accessibility. 

    Upkeep: You will want to make sure that students are a part of maintaining the books within the library. For example, if books are organized according to genre, students need to know genre characteristics. If new books come into the library, you and your students might think about which books to donate or put in a storage bin or another virtual library slide for now. 

    Applying THE process to classroom libraries is not a one-and-done event. As you acquire more physical books or find additional virtual libraries online, THE process will have to be continually applied. Having students edit the library each year or at the beginning of each quarter will reveal new steps for the library. Different groups of students may like certain topics more than others, for example. Make sure to allow your students’ reading interests and abilities to inform the editing of your classroom libraries. Students’ insight into your classroom library can be helpful and meaningful as we aim for our ultimate goal: cultivating lifelong readers. 

    The Technology Resources Edit

    And, finally, here is how I apply THE to the myriad technology resources I have come across during this period of remote teaching: 

    Edit: If you are like me, you have lists of technology resources that colleagues have created. My list was small at the beginning of the school year, but now it’s becoming quite long. Inspired by both Stephanie Affinito’s post “Organize, Collaborate and More With Google Keep” and THE process, I embarked on organizing my technology resources links so that they can be useful. 

    First I copied and pasted all of my URLs in one document. Then, I color coded my resources to create labels such as Early Literacy Resources, Virtual Classroom Backgrounds, Secondary Methods Resources, Children’s Picture Book Virtual Libraries, and Young Adult Virtual Libraries. Then I critically reflected on the quality of the resources and pared down each list to the top five resources. That was the hardest part for me!

    Assembly: Once I had my labels and top five resources, I used Google’s Keep function (Padlet is another tool that might work for this) and created sticky notes for each of my categories. I then created lists with the resources’ hyperlinks.

    Upkeep: Upkeep will be hard, especially considering that a quick look at social media can add more resources to my running list. But with every new resource I find, I consider whether this new resource should replace an old one or maybe be kept in reserve to switch in later. Either way, maintaining my resource lists will help me find my resources more quickly so that I can incorporate them into my teaching or recommend them to my students more easily. 

    Go Forth and Edit 

    I hope that these blog posts give you a few ways to think about applying THE to your classroom writing instruction, libraries, and technology resources. Please let me know how you applying THE method to your literacy instruction and professional development! 
     
    Katie Caprino is an assistant professor of PK–12 New Literacies at Elizabethtown College. She teaches and researches in the areas of children’s, middle grade, and young adult literature; technology integration in the literacy classroom; and the teaching of writing and blogs frequently at her blog
    Katie Reviews Books (katiereviewsbooks.wordpress.com). You can follow her on Twitter @KCapLiteracy.

     
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