Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Getting Down To Brass Tacks

I often feel a sense of urgency when the kids walk into my room for writing intervention. Twenty minutes is not a whole lot of time, and in this season of testing and field trips, (and before that, snow days!), I get even less time with the kids. At the beginning of the year, I started intervention sessions with a Do Now-type activity or a quick jot but began to shuttle that in favor of getting right to work.

Even if I get there fast, I still need to take it slow. I didn't know it was possible to spend twenty minutes working on just a few sentences, but it is, I've discovered.  When I reframed my thinking to approach intervention on the sentence level, I poked around the internet for ideas and examples of this in action. Specifically, I was trying to figure out how to scaffold this small unit. Why focus so much on the sentence? For one thing, working with a whole piece of writing can be overwhelming. It can be hard to know where to start when the entire piece is riddled with poor sentence construction, grammar mistakes, and a lack of elaboration. And there's also this, from Doug Lemov:
Over the past few years I’ve come to believe more and more strongly in the power of the sentence as a tool for developing proficiency in reading and writing.  The fundamental problem, for students who don’t write or read as well as they could, is often that they aren’t good enough at creating sentences that capture the nuances of a complex idea or the relationships of complex ideas and they similarly fail to successfully untangle the nuances and interrelations in such sentences when written by others. 

So, how do we scaffold sentence construction? The same way we scaffold everything else for kids: I do, We do, You Do. In Lemov's Art of the Sentence, that means providing sentence starters. It is important to model well-written sentence, and to make these models interactive so that students can get a feel for how to write a well-crafted sentence. Training wheels, if you will. In his post, Lemov shows how, in the beginning, sentence starters are generous and as students begin to gain skill, the starters become more sparse.

But I also want students to understand how elements of a sentence relate to each other, and that means teaching straight-up grammar. In a session with a student that I see for elaboration, we went through a piece he wrote, sentence by sentence. In each sentence, we identified, where used,  the independent clause, the dependent clause, and subordinate conjunctions.  If we want students to write complex sentences full of specific detail, breaking the sentence apart like this allows students to see the opportunity for refining a sentence. The student was also able to see how adding or changing punctuation marks would alter the meaning of the sentence. And in the cases where there were two dependent clauses, with no independent clause in sight, parsing the sentence made that error obvious.

In my haste, however, I've often forgotten to focus on the most important aspect of these intervention sessions-- the strategy itself. Though I know I need to first develop background knowledge, discuss the strategy and model the strategy, according to the principles of SRSD, I often rush right to the implementation of the strategy. It's overwhelming and counterproductive--it really beats the point of intervention in the first place, which is to move the kids towards independence. With only four weeks left in the school year, my sense of urgency is growing but like I told a teacher today, quality over quantity.

I continue to grow and learn in this new role as a interventionist, and I'm really thankful that I've had the space to do that, that it's not just me figuring things out. The literacy coach with whom I work brings years of experience to her position, but she also is figuring out what RTI should look like in this new context-- a part-time paraprofessional, limited to periods of the day when students are not in core classes or taking specials. But we're teachers. Somehow, we get it all done.

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