Reflections & Understandings about Independent Work in the Common Core Literacy Block: Part 1

*This is the first post in a three part series about the literacy block, independent work, the teacher's role and place in the room, and how what students need to be able to do is multi-faceted and beyond a checklist of yes they can or no they can't...*

Interesting A-HA has occurred for me in the last two weeks since returning from track-out regarding the independent work portion of my literacy block. Because I only work with students for a portion of my day, and because I don't actually work with 2nd grade and 3rd grade in an intervention capacity... I provide core support, which means for an hour each day, 26 middle to high-ish 3rd graders come to me for an hour and then later in the day when 2nd grade has literacy, 26 middle to high-ish 2nd graders come to me for an hour. Each group gets their core mini-lesson from their own teacher and then comes to me for guided reading, etc. (These three posts are mostly about the "etc." with some key permissions about "guided reading" and when, who, what and here that might take place in your room).  Because I have such a large group, and I like it that way, when students are not with me for guided reading, they are doing independent work. What this actually means and should mean is at the heart of these posts.

There is also a striking coincidence between this post and the three separate emails I have received from readers over the last two months regarding this very topic of independent work...three separate teachers in three different states asking..... What is it or rather what does it look like? What do they do?...and, What am I doing?

I will be honest and say, this topic is something very near and dear to my literacy heart.  I've been in education for almost twenty years now. When I first started teaching in 1994, we had basals, workbooks and worksheets.  We did some cooperative learning, lots of book reports and whole class novel studies and we had spelling tests. For the most part, kids learned skills in isolation and I checked it off  and marked them proficient or not on a district report card, and then they went off to the next grade, and repeated the learning, assessing, checklist, reporting cycle in the next grade, and the next grade. Kids did very little higher order thinking, they never agreed and disagreed with each other, and maybe they might explain their math answer in writing in their math journal during a Marilyn Burns replacement unit.

[I know that below I jump back and forth between past and present...just go with me on this]

And then somewhere along the way as a teacher, I learned about comprehension strategy instruction, I learned the difference between phonemic awareness and phonics, I learned that direct vocabulary instruction matters, and I learned about fluency and its role for a reader. I also learned how important language, both oral and written expression was in reading development, and the how important print exposure was and the meaning of a print-rich classroom.  I learned how important it was for kids to spend lots of lots of time actually reading at school, what Lucy Calkin's calls "eyes on print" time, in books they self-select, about topics interesting to them, from authors interesting to them, in genres interesting to them. I learned how important it was for kids to write (every day) about topics meaningful to them and that writing development takes time and that "publish" doesn't mean "perfect." I learned that each child is different and that not every child fits into a box or a mold and some of them baffle us, challenge us and keep us on our game.  I learned about the gradual release of responsibility and how important it was to model and think aloud with children so they may hear and "see" our thinking. I learned about the importance of trust, differences and classroom community.  I learned that students must feel connected and students must feel ownership and in charge their learning. I learned that developing the affective domain is just as important as developing the cognitive domain. I learned that students must "see" and know the value of their effort, and that their effort and perseverance can make a different in their achievement and most importantly, instill in them a belief (a mindset) in themselves that they CAN DO ANYTHING if they try (long enough), practice (without giving up), and persevere (even when it's hard)! [Reading a fascinating book about the growth mindset right now, get it here] I learned that for many students, all it takes is one teacher believing in them when they do not yet believe in themselves.  I learned that students are people too, little people learning about the world, just like everyone else, and in my classroom, no one person is better or smarter than anyone else, including me, we all learn from each other.  I learned that for some students who get dropped off early and get picked up late, spend more time with their teacher than they do with their parents.  And I learned the importance of developing problem-solvers, critical thinkers, analyzers, evaluators, critiquers, communicators, and collaborators....(AND I also learned that it is also my job to educate parents on everything above....)

And then it hit me.

I know what I'm teaching in literacy and they know what they're learning. (I tell them and it's on the board)
I know how I'm teaching literacy and they know how they're learning. (I tell them and show them.)
I know why I'm teaching literacy but THEY DON'T KNOW WHY they're learning literacy.

This A-HA was huge for me...because as you read above, I have learned so much over the years about good teaching and learning, best practices about cognitive, affective and social-emotional development, and all the warm-fuzzy stuff about the difference I make in the lives of my students, yet the answers to the questions I began to ask them, scared the CRAP OUT OF ME!

So, let me set the stage for you.  Two weeks ago, I got a mostly the same (some new students) batch of 26 kids for my reading group. I began explaining the literacy centers that they would be doing in my room when they weren't stationed to be with me for guided reading. And realizing that I didn't want my mini-lesson to turn into a maxi-lesson, so I talked fast and didn't check for too much understanding, I mean for the most part.  I truly believe though that we must set students up for success at these "independent centers" so they can make the most of it, so like Jan Richardson says in her book, The Next Step in Guided Reading...

....and then I stopped about five minutes into my explanation and asked them (a survey sort of question)...

Why do you think teachers have you work on literacy stuff "out here" while we are working with students "over there?"

And this is what most of them said...

"To keep up busy."
"To learn stuff."

Only one child even came close to the answer I was hoping for and said...

"To practice the reading stuff you teach us."

These answers sent chills through me because all of  a sudden it occurred to me, that if this is what students think "literacy centers" or "independent work" or "listen to reading" or whatever *you* call it, is for, then we (I) must be sending them this message, and this killed literacy made my literacy heart frown.  For any of you that know me in real life, you know how much I value being extremely transparent with the student one year that said, "Mrs. Jones, you are going to metacognition us to death!" Yes, maybe so, but at least you are thinking about your thinking and I've done my job! But FOR REAL! people, I knew I needed to do some extremely quick mid-course corrections to shore up these misconceptions about how they were spending a very large portion of their day!

Stick with me and....

stay tuned, until tomorrow to read what I did about about it and what you can do too.



Anonymous said...

Jen, I truly cannot wait to read your next post. I am right there with you. I check in every day almost because I cannot wait to buy your 3-6 Common Core materials. I am constantly reflecting this year, and looking for solutions that will prepare the precious fourth grade students in my room. I am one heart with you and admire so much the things that you are doing. Your ideas and posts are some of my biggest inspiration this school year. Keep the A-Ha's coming! : ) A fourth grade teacher in AZ

Amy Steed said...

I have read the book Mindset and thought it was fantastic! It really is amazing how we think that students know the "why" of what we are doing. Looking forward to reading your next posts!

Ginger Snaps said...

Can't wait to read tomorrows post!! For real!

Mrs. Wilson-Scott said...

I am very intrigued and thinking I need to ask my students those same questions!

Amanda Redalen said...

I am looking forward to your next post. You are truly my teacher "guru" who I try and emulate in my own classroom. Thanks for the inspiring post!

Irene Zajac said...

Thank you so much for sharing this...I always believed in telling students the why we are doing or learning this!!
Great thinking

Anonymous said...

Hi Jen!
The Lord has led me to you because I have been SO frustrated (beginning to not want to teach anymore) about running a classroom with centers and guided reading. I learned how to use those teacher's manuals of long ago and we didn't stray from them. I want to change and develop this NEW thinking but I feel old (47 years old and 24 years in classroom) and behind times. I get so tired of trying to figure out our team planning because my colleagues know exactly what they are doing since they have learned this new style of teaching compared to 25 yrs. ago! . They don't know any other way. It is so natural for them. THEN there is me! I leave planning feeling like I was a bump on a log bringing nothing to the table. - I love finding new things/ways to teach and don't always do what I did the year before. In a nutshell, I am going to follow you and learn how to do this thing!! I am very visual but the way you are describing what happens is clear to me. I look forward to learning more so I can feel like a credible member of my first grade team. Thank you so much!

Teresa Hill said...

Hi Jen! I was wondering how many minutes your centers are and how many centers your students go to each day.

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