Wednesday, April 29, 2015

#Rhizo15: My First Thoughts

Oh, yes. Look at me, posting twice in one week... like I said, it's been a slow week because of testing. 

And speaking of testing, I learned about #Rhizo15 in my Twitter travels this morning. My very uptight and anxious nature is completely uncomfortable with the concept of Rhizomatic Learning, developed by Dave Cormier. It's one of these things that sounds intriguing to me but also makes me squirm with insecurity. Where's my roadmap?!

But there is only the sketchiest vision of a map. I can work with that, though.

Back in 2004, I took a road trip through the Andes with a few friends. We rented a pick-up truck in Quito, Ecuador and took off for Guayaquil. Have you ever driven through the Andes? Probably not, because it is not possible to drive through it. You have to drive around it. Around and around and around and around. Higher and higher and higher, then lower and lower and lower. You get the picture. Here in the US, we have the luxury of well-lit highways and road signs every few miles that reassure us that we're headed in the right directions. You can pull off the road if you need to pee and grab a bag of gummy worms. In the Andes, not so much. Those curvy roads are the width of a one-way street but are meant for two-way traffic. And there are no lights. And there are no road signs. The "map" we got was a picture of some lines that showed approximate locations of some major cities. Were there even any distances on it? I doubt it.

It got darker and darker as we wound our way around the mountain. Then, it got foggy. Driving through a cloud forest in the dark on a twisty road with no guardrails is not for the faint of heart. Also, we were fighting off feral dogs that kept trying to jump into the truck bed. (Not kidding.) So, what did we do?

 Mike drove, and I leaned out the window shouting "right, left, right, left," so that we would not take a nosedive off the side of the mountain while Sue and the other Mike fended off the dogs. Then, a truck with bright headlights appeared behind. We quickly pulled to the side to let the truck pass and then followed that truck's lights all the way down the mountain, matching it's every turn until finally we coasted into a sleepy town on the outskirts of Guayaquil, in the earliest hours of a new day.

That was a nice anecdote, but where was I? Oh, testing. This week, Dave asks what kind of learning can't be measured?  What should we be counting?  The very nature of my job requires me to measure and track everything, as a writing interventionist. I count how many words students write in a given period of time, I count how many different types of sentences students construct in a piece of writing. I count how many words have been spelled incorrectly. I count how many pieces of punctuation have been missed. And I track it all, looking for upward improvement.

But is there anything valuable about writing intervention that can't be counted and charted? Maybe. How about the realization that adding an exclamation point completely changes the tone of a sentence? Or that a comma can alter the meaning of a sentence? How do I measure the intensity of the lightbulb that flickers on in those moments? I don't think I can, but I'm sure it counts!

Emily Purser asks:
Meanwhile, the powers that be at my institution are of the 'questionable' variety of view that a valid indicator of our 'performance' as educators would be to count the number of hits on our website.... if only they were kidding. Not only that, but it's a website we didn't design, and that doesn't represent my work in ANY way that I find meaningful or accurate! please. But what are they supposed to do? - they're being given silly spreadsheets from on high will boxes to fill with numbers. They could stop being so compliant, and shout "a pox on your box!"... but then maybe there is something sensible to measure, that we can supply instead? 

Is the trouble with the tools, or the tradesmen?

I say, it's a combination of both. True, valid measurements of what students are learning requires time, money, and wherewithal. School administrators are typically short on all three.  Packages and programs produced by publishing companies are alluring. It makes things neat, systematized, standardized, reproducible and easier to think of skills as widgets. I get it, I really do and I freely admit that having a program makes my life easier too. After all, I get twenty minutes a week or every other week with each student. Efficiency and effectiveness become important, even when I know that kids need time and space to delve into the messy work of writing. I strive for balance, and work around this by focusing on the micro elements of writing-- the sentence, the word, the puncutation.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Shaping A Vision for Push-In Writing Intervention

A working lunch. 
It's been a slow month for me at the middle school, because of SBAC testing, so I've had a lot of time to reflect on my first year as a writing interventionist, and how I will use what I've learned so far in the next school year. Yes! It's only April but I'm already thinking ahead to September. Why? Because this next month and a half presents limited opportunity, amidst our busy schedules, to connect and plan with the literacy coach before we part ways for the summer.

When I came into this role back in October, I was at somewhat of a disadvantage. First, I wasn't around for the first month of school and didn't have the opportunity to connect with the grade-level teams or plan ahead with the literacy coach, or assist her in identifying students who needed Tier 1 or 2 support.

Secondly, I was a replacement hire. The teacher that was originally in my position served in this role very differently and had a different relationship with the English teachers. (The job description changed at the time I was hired.) So, this meant that I had to negotiate a new understanding of the writing interventionist role with the classroom teachers, while at the same time, no one was really 100% sure what my role would look like, since it was a new position.

Third, and most significant, I was and am transitioning from being a full-time classroom teacher to a part-time writing interventionist that works with a small group of students on a narrow scope of writing skills individualized to each student. What does this mean? It means that when I taught high school English, I was more of a generalist. With 175 students, I inevitably gravitated towards teaching to the middle or upper middle of my classes, with very little time for differentiation, despite my best efforts. I also spent much of my time in a reader response mode with the students, and instead of delivering explicit writing instruction, I taught the 5 paragraph essay and "taught" writing via margin notes on papers and the use of "formulas."

As a writing interventionist, I do what every English teacher wishes she could do in the daily running of her classroom. It's basically a dream job but I've had to shift gears-- I still think in terms of the big picture but I also have the luxury of zooming in on the little details within the picture that help students with the micro elements of writing--the sentence and paragraph level, in other words. It's like the Slow Movement of education.

This year, I did a combination of push-in and pull-out, though it did take me awhile to figure out what push-in for writing support might look like, since students typically don't spend a whole period working on writing, nor do many teachers have any regularly scheduled writing routine. This, I understand from my classroom teaching days but now, with the benefit of hindsight, experience and observation, I see that there are probably many ways to make writing happen every day in the English classroom, even under the constraint of 45 minute periods. Some of this writing might be low-stakes and some might be high-stakes. Steven Covey says we should schedule our priorities, and not the other way around. If we value and prioritize writing, then it can happen everyday and there are many, many teachers who do exactly that. All writing counts! I had to remember this, in order to realize that push-in works with low-stakes writing too. Journaling or doing sentence exercises at the beginning of class, during the Do Now, presents an opportunity to reinforce the skills and strategies that students have been working on during intervention.

So, what does push-in look like for a writing interventionist?

  • Non-intrusive
  • Non-disruptive
  • Follows the lead of the teacher and the flow of the classroom
  • Sometimes, I'm crouching desk-side, supporting students with a specific part of a task, like sentence construction. 
  • Sometimes, I'm sitting with a small group of students, all working on the same task, and offering guidance as they work through it. 
  • Sometimes, I am walking around, ready to assist any student, not just the ones I see for intervention. 
  • If possible, I check in with the teacher before I come in, or as I'm entering the room. 
  • Sometimes, I am sitting in the back of the room, observing the lesson and taking notes, so that I can model the same language used by the teacher and teaching points during intervention sessions. 
That last bullet point is particularly important, as it is helpful to know what students are doing in class, so that I can be consistent and provide continuity during intervention sessions, in order to avoid confusion. Whatever strategies I give to students, those strategies must work within the framework the teacher uses in the classroom. 

I have another month and a half (thanks to all the snow days!) to work on this model of push-in support for writing intervention, to learn more lessons about balancing push-in with pull-out, and to begin to develop toolkits that students can access during class, whether or not I'm in the classroom. (I'll share what I've learned about toolkits, specifically in an intervention setting,  in a future post, as that is still under development!)