Dear PenPal: Reading Conversations Across Boston

We are two middle school ELA teachers who teach in different neighborhoods in the Boston Public Schools. Through our WritingIsThinking collaboration, we created an Independent Reading Pen Pals Program for our students. Beginning in October, students from each class write and address letters to students in the other class across the city several times throughout the year. At the end of the year, the two classes will come together and meet one another. The following is the first in a series of posts about our process of collaboration, the blooming relationships between PenPal writers between our classrooms, and our learnings. 

penpal letters

Post 1: The Preparation

Dear Kat,

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about our conversation yesterday when we talked about creating an Independent Reading Pen Pals program between our classrooms. I’m imagining a new kind of authentic engagement from our students with their independent reading books. Plus, an authentic Pen Pal letter definitely beats a typical reading response that I’ve been using in my classroom the last few years. As we make this idea into reality, we should keep the goals we talked about at the center of our work.

The first goal we set was building a community of readers across our city. We can have our students suggest books to one another, and maybe they’ll read the same book at the same time and compare their opinions. The pen pal relationship could be so crucial to the way that students approach finding their books. Maybe we can even set the expectation that they’ll meet in person before the year is out. We also talked about authentic accountability for independent reading. Because students will be “real” with one another, we will have insights as to how our students are thinking about text  and that they will select challenging texts to impress their pals. They won’t only be doing the work to please us as their teachers, but to be able to have a conversation with a peer. Finally, we spoke about the individualized nature of letter writing, and how we want kids to value the letter because it is something that another person put time into that was created just for them. This will augment engagement and make for long, fluent letters by the end of the school year.

I can’t wait to kick this off! Talk soon.

Always,

Alice

 

Dear Alice,

I hope these lines find you well. I am ecstatic for my students to write to yours this week! I have been talking about our upcoming partnership with my students for the last four weeks, and now the time is finally here! To help us match pen pals, I thought it would be easiest to create an excel spreadsheet in Google drive. I have inputted all of my students and some information about them that would help us match pen pals. For each student I included some of their interests based on their “Meet the Author” pieces, the types of independent reading books they have been reading thus far this year, if they have an ELD or SPED code, and some other details about what they would bring to a pen pal relationship or what I would ideally like for them to get out of one.

I have been thinking a lot about the potential these partnerships have to lift many of my students, both in regards of engagement in reading, and friendship. Here are a few of the students I am most excited for:

  • Mitchell: A sweetie-pie. He is a big kid who loves the Celtics and spends all of lunch making free throws. He is a little lonely (social pragmatics challenges) and all of his realistic fiction stories this year center around kindness and accepting everyone. He works really hard and will be a very diligent writer. I think matching him with someone who can really affirm him will be powerful!
  • Daniela: Her disability and language needs are compounded which makes her writing very challenging to read. She does produce a lot of writing in volume though. She loves animals and wants to be a vet. I will provide her with appropriate scaffolding and read her letters with her before she sends them. I would pair her with someone who is either at a similar level or has some empathy. 🙂 She loves and is currently reading the graphic novel Drama.
  • Sergio: Loves football, has a very low self esteem with regard to writing, but is a strong writer. Pairing him with someone who will ask questions and push his writing would be awesome!!!

I have also been thinking about a few of my students who have been struggling to get into independent reading this year and whom I believe this partnership could engage. I think we should be prepared that the first few letters may not be book related at all, but may just get kids writing! They may just want to talk about social topics, but I think that’s ok, as building a sense of community is one of our objectives. I think we can teach into writing about reading comprehension once the engagement is there. One of my students is constantly on my mind when I think about a need for community, and for engagement in text:

  • Armondo: Our toughest Tier 3 kid this year. He needs a lot of love and someone to listen to him. Mom just had a baby. He has been reading the Simpsons comic books this year. He hates doing assigned tasks, but I think will respond well to someone who is focused on just him. 🙂 Would benefit from having a pen pal who models what letter writing should look like. He loves football and basketball.

Since our schedules are so packed and we aren’t able to meet face-to-face before I launch the letter writing in my classroom this week, I propose we use google docs to match pen pals. Why don’t you use your class roster to try and match students based on your knowledge of your students and what I have included in the google doc. If you need any clarification on any of the students, let me know!

Fondly,

Kat

 

Dear Kat,

That google doc was the perfect idea. I matched my students in column D of the spreadsheet and, if I thought there were things that you should know about that particular student, I noted them in column E (IEP needs, language information, etc). I’ve also been talking about this relationship for the last four weeks, so kids are itching to hear from your students.

Always,

Alice

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Screenshot of google doc used by teachers to match students based on interests, strengths, and needs.

Using Writing to Teach Self-Advocacy

When do students with special needs who have been supported in all aspects of their educational experiences become active participants, instead of passive bystanders? When do they transition into being self-advocates, instead of being the reason for teacher advocacy?   How does this transition happen, and how can writing help?  These questions were on the forefront of my mind as I launched an investigative journalism unit in our 8th grade writing class while also recalling the mantra of our special education team- “No decision about me without me.”  How do I teach both advocacy and grade level writing standards without forcing a connection or having students merely regurgitate my ideas?

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In an effort to address barriers with engagement for the writing unit, students were encouraged to investigate an issue that mattered to the community but also to them as individuals. Many students chose the Boston Public Schools high school selection process wherein an algorithm determines a child’s future.  Boston Public Schools holds an annual lottery wherein families rank their high school options and a computer generated program determines their high school assignment based on location, ranking, sibling school placement, ESL codes and Special Needs codes.  There are also schools that require an application process and/or an exam score for the opportunity to attend. The high school process in Boston is similar to applying to college in terms of selecting from various options and having different requirements for admission. In the case of students with IEP’s who receive educational support either in an inclusion setting or in a sub-separate classroom (80% of their school day), these students have less school options that go into the algorithm.

At the outset of the unit, I conferenced with students who were struggling to identify a relevant issue, and when meeting with one of my inclusion students, Andy, I mentioned the high school process and asked how he was feeling about it.  I explained that he would get fewer options and asked which options he hoped he had.  At the time, Boston Public Schools was not able to provide the inclusion seat options to students and families so the discussion was based solely on what we hoped we would see on his list of school choices even though non special education students were aware of all of their options.

This fact that he had less options and something different from his peers was life changing for Andy.  As a student with language based learning disabilities who uses English in school and Vietnamese at home to communicate, one could argue he spends a great deal of his day working on using his language skills for self-advocacy, especially since his expressive and receptive language skills are low in both his L1 and L2.  Language does not come easily to him.  He is often quiet and frequently relies on his peers for expressive language  and his teachers for receptive language.

When he learned of the inequity happening to him in regard to high school, he found his voice.  I was nervous to name the issue because I worried about his self-perception and wanted to protect him from the harshness of a system that, for the fourteen years of my teaching career, has continued to disappoint me when it comes to supporting transitions for students from 8th grade to 9th grade.  Was this more about my feelings than Andy’s? I had to name for myself that I was only giving him facts, and it was Andy who generated the real feelings that mattered the most.

Andy's Article

Andy surveyed his classmates to gauge their reactions to learning students with IEPs get a reduced number of high school options.   He interviewed his assistant principal in person and also  interviewed the head of the Boston Public Schools Guidance Department via e-mail.  Andy then participated in high school research—studying websites and visiting schools.  With teacher support, he created a multi-paragraph news article highlighting the inequity that exists within Boston Public Schools for students with specific special needs.  The fact that he produced multiple paragraphs that reflect grade level standards of including claim, evidence, and reasoning in his writing exceeded his IEP goals and highlighted his potential that had previously been unseen.   

However, perhaps the biggest transformation that occurred is that for the first time in Andy’s life, he exercised his power through language and independently completed the application to his most desired high school.  He had to complete a paper application that included family input, to request his transcripts and to generate an essay explaining the characteristics of a good school and a good student as well as detailing why he wanted to attend this specific school.  It was the first time Andy was independent with a task involving multiple steps.  He found his voice, and it was one of power.

I didn’t have to speak for him. He was able to speak for himself. Through discussing, thinking and writing, he was able to exercise his independence for the first time. I realize I don’t need to be advocating for him, I need to be advocating with him.  How do I increase student voice and advocacy from those who need it most?  This is the question I will continue to ask my students so that together we can be agents of change for a transition process in Boston Public Schools that is in desperate need of updates.

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Andy reads his news article draft out loud with pride so he can receive feedback from his grandfather at the GPA Writing Celebration on December 16, 2015. 

 

Analysis of ELL Writing Calls for Spelling Intervention

The inquiry work described below is an Analytic Memo assignment that I completed for the Boston Teachers Union’s Inquiry Project course.  I am a member of the 2015/2016 cohort of this teacher-facilitated inquiry program. This memo provides an analysis of two student writing samples: sympathy cards to President Hollande following the November terrorist attack on Paris and essays that describe Sarah Hale, the  “Grandmother of Thanksgiving”.

My goal for this school year is to improve the written expression of my middle school ESL students. I aim for my students to develop writing skills that allow them to not only fully express their ideas but also to deepen their thinking through writing. As a 9th year teacher who has always worked with ELL students, in both ESL classes and content classes, I have noticed that writing is complex for these students at the word, sentence, and discourse levels.

ParisCards

 

In the past, I have had success in developing students’ writing skills through reading response pieces with a variety of texts as well as process writing tasks with authentic audiences (i.e. a class book of personal essays titled “How I Make Boston Strong” for the Boston Police following the Boston Marathon Bombings; argument essays on the benefits of tap water over bottled water for the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority Writing Contest). My teaching strategies included setting a clear purpose and audience for writing with students, modeling using transparencies and an overhead projector, using a combination of handwriting and word process technologies for draft writing, teaching techniques for writing hooks and adding details to sentences, facilitating peer editing, using student-teacher writing conferences, and, most importantly, providing lots of time for writing in class.

Although these techniques have been effective, I am always searching to learn more about how to work with students on their writing because I view writing as an essential life skill. I know that my students will be judged on their ability to write in the future, whether in academic settings or in workplaces. From collaborating with the middle school English Language Arts teachers at my school, I know that my current ESL class is composed of students who have struggled significantly with written expression. Their ELA teachers report that these students produce poor writing during their English Language Arts classes, and many of the students are long-term ELLs, having attended monolingual “English-only” education programs since kindergarten.

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My First Inquiry Question

Before getting to know my current batch of students, my question for inquiry relied on my past experience of having shorter-term ELL students who constructed mostly simple sentences in their writing:

Through what metacognitive and multisensory means might students enhance the variety of grammatical structures they employ in their writing?

My students in previous years had been coded as ELLs for 3 to 5 years, and they often simply needed daily writing practice and more exposure to English in order to produce more complex sentences.

However, upon analysis of my current students’ work habits and abilities, I realize that my current students are quite different. They have more writing stamina; even when given permission to check in with a friend during writing practice, they do not even whisper to one another. They remain, for the most part, completely focused on the task at hand. Consequently, they are able to produce a sufficient volume of writing. So, what exactly is holding them back from meeting the successes I have seen with students in previous years?

ParisLetter2

The WIDA MODEL Framework

Using the introductory materials from the WIDA MODEL writing assessment has helped to clarify and categorize the specific concerns most relevant to written expression for ELLs.The MODEL recognizes that it is acceptable for ELLs at the beginning and intermediate level to use copied sections of text as well as adapted (paraphrased) text in written expression as they are learning how to use the English language. However, the MODEL also maintains that the end goal is for students to produce written language that is original in both content and form, just as is expected of native English speakers.  The MODEL evaluates student writing based on three major components: linguistic complexity, vocabulary usage, and language control.

Linguistic complexity refers to the quantity of language produced. At the sentence level, are sentences simple subject+verb+object constructions, or are they expanded from this basic kernel? At the discourse level, are paragraphs organized with topic, body, and conclusion sentences? Is the presented sequence of information or order of events logical? How much does the student write in a given time frame?

Vocabulary usage refers to the variety and sophistication of words the writer uses. Are the words general high-frequency words or more specific “Tier 2” vocabulary? Are students capable of using content-specific technical vocabulary in their writing? Are the same vocabulary words repeated, or are there synonyms that add variety to the writing?

Language control includes not only grammar (morphology and syntax) and mechanics (spelling, punctuation, and capitalization), but also precision with word choice. Is the student using precisely the right word in precisely the right place in the language sequence?

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Close Reading of Student Writing

With the lens of the MODEL in mind, I took a close look at two writing assignments from my current students. The first writing assignment was a short essay on the life and accomplishments of a historical figure. Students had about half of a class period (30 minutes) to complete this assignment. The second assignment was a sympathy letter to French President Francois Hollande following the recent terrorist attacks in Paris. This assignment was completed over two class periods, and it required students to write a rough draft as well as a final draft.

Link to Google Doc with Analysis Notes

On a positive note, I was impressed by the expanded sentences that many students employed in their writing. However, I was struck by the lack of conventions in spelling, particularly those related to morphology in areas such as pluralization (i.e. countrys – This student did not automatically know to “change the y to an i and add “es” or makeing – This student did not know to “drop the e and add -ing”.) I wonder how much their writing would improve with greater use of conventional spelling.
ParisLetter3

It must be exhausting for the students to constantly have to guess at the spellings of words. Imagine how much this slows them down and interferes with their abilities to get their thoughts down on paper. For example, S. is working so hard to spell so many words through application of sound-symbol correspondence; however, this is typical of a 1st grade monolingual emergent writer, and S.is a 6th grade student who has been in the Boston Public Schools for 7 years. A., due to either spelling or vocabulary, gives up on producing original ideas and relies on copying chunks of text. I wonder if the students are even aware how much their spelling interferes with the meaning in their writing. Do they know that their spelling is irregular and would not make sense to a non-teacher reader?

Other points that struck me were lack of attention to capitalization and use of periods, as well as the erratic placement of commas. Can the students internally sense the phrasing of their writing – do they “hear their writing breathe”? When they read independently, are they able to sort of the rhythm and structures of phrases as they read? Do my students read aloud fluently? Can they mark or scoop a sentence for its breath?

ParisLetter1

My conclusion is that my students need support with writing conventions in order to improve the decisions they make about the marks they are putting on the page. It is tempting to ignore their errors and move forward with the “fun” of teaching the content of reading and writing. However, I would be ashamed had my students gone through this year with me, a professional and experienced educator, recognizing this problem and doing nothing about it, especially since my training as a reading specialist did give me some background in multi-sensory strategies for teaching encoding. So, I must plan a course of action that supports my students in developing as writers.

My Second Inquiry Question and My Plan

First, I have revised my inquiry question:

Through what metacognitive and multisensory means might students enhance their use of conventional spelling and punctuation in their writing?

Second, I have a few resources I would like to use with my students, including the spelling and word study curriculas Words by Marcia Henry and Language! by Sopris Voyager, as well as the secondary grammar text Grammar Explorer by Cengage.  I also want to explore expanding the 1:1 encoding techniques I learned as a student at the MGH Communication Sciences & Disorders Clinic for use in whole class classroom context.

Screen Shot 2015-12-06 at 12.40.50 PMI plan to conduct a better analysis of which syllable types they struggle to encode by assessing my students using the Moats Primary Spelling Inventory. Finally, for my research articles as well as my book review, I want to seek out resources on spelling and conventions instruction for ELLs.

Right now, the goal of teaching spelling and conventions to middle school ELLs seems tedious and daunting, but I know the students really need it. I am making a promise to myself to ensure that the work ahead is engaging, connected, and relevant to my students, as I know how much they need these spelling and conventions skills for their future. Readers of their job applications and college admissions letters will be extremely distracted by the form of their writing as it is now, and most will infer that incorrect conventions are a sign of weak ideas and arguments. If this problem is not fixed, it will have future consequences for the 15 children in my classroom.

 

Building Vocabulary: Using Project-Based Learning to Understand Organelles and Their Functions

Introducing students to the invisible world of microscopic life has always been one of my favorite scientific investigations. Students broaden their understanding of the surrounding world by examining tangible evidence of scientific concepts that cannot be proven with standard empirical observation. For example, students are taught that all plants are made up of multiple cells, but this concept is not made real until they see the layers of green bricks that construct a small portion of a leaf they found outside. The deeper they look, the broader the scope of science becomes, and with that depth comes an array of new terms and concepts that must be acquired. In this investigation, students had to stretch their understanding beyond the magnification of the microscope, and demonstrate knowledge of new invisible structures that made up cells: organelles.

As I began to develop my lesson plans, I found myself staring into the unknown as my curricula no longer served as a map to our final destination. According to the Massachusetts science standards, students must learn to identify the structure and function of organelles in a cell, but the district-provided curricula does not offer a way for students to meet this standard. In order to prepare my lessons, I needed to independently research the content and create instructional materials for this

This is a sketch I found on the classroom floor while cleaning after school. Polysemous words like
This is a sketch I found on the classroom floor while cleaning after school. Polysemous words like “cell” are challenging for many ELLs, and I was proud to see the spontaneous use of creativity and humor to display a complex concept.

portion of the unit. Students not only had to master novel scientific language, but they needed to use this language to describe how organelles interact to create the smallest unit of life. I knew that students needed a creative approach to mastering these novel terms, one that would help them demonstrate their mastery both using oral and written language. After conducting research and consulting colleagues, I decided that the best way to accomplish this task would be to have the students work on a project in which they either would build a cell model or create a poster that demonstrates how organelles are analogous to other systems.

This project-based learning approach proved to be an engaging strategy that allowed students to actively synthesize information, rather than just practice rote memorization of cell parts. At the center of this project was a two-fold writing process. As students constructed their project, I asked them to to write about the function of each organelle in order to learn about the cell. Later, I required that they demonstrate their knowledge by completing a writing assignment that asked high order thinking questions around organelles in plant and animal cells. This powerful process gave me insight into my students’ learning and helped me to better understand the ways in which I can support the English Language Learners and Students with Special Needs in the classroom.

The Project

I was nervous during the onset of this project, as I had never attempted an artistic, open ended assignment like this in my class. My supplies were limited, and it required a great deal of imagination and effort from each student to complete construction of cell model. Students needed to bring in materials from home to complete the task and had to rely on their own understanding of cell structure to complete the project.  I was afraid that, while students were able to construct a model or build a poster, they would get caught up in the creative process and not internalize the names and functions of the cell. These fears subsided soon after the project began.

Early in the lesson planning process, I realized that the key to a successful project would be in providing a clear objective. I developed a rubric that ensured all students were able to write about specific organelles and allowed students to either focus on a model of a cell, or create a poster that served as an analogy of the functions of the organelles. This level of choice provided an opportunity for students to select their own accommodations, and this freedom ultimately resulted in a higher level of engagement. In fact, some students decided to go beyond the assignment and merged the two projects by constructing cell analogies in a model form.

In the end, four types of projects emerged:

The Cell Analogy Model

A small group of students had their heart set on building a model, but wanted to go beyond constructing a replica of a cell. This resulted in these students creating PhotoGrid_1432689212260their own “Hybrid Project” in which they took elements from the Cell Analogy poster, and combined it with the 3-D model aspects of the cell model project. Two groups built a Cell City, where different city structures represent parts of the cell, while another student worked independently to show how a cell is like a family inside their home. In all cases the students that took on this ambitious project were my top performing students, and they had no problem demonstrating they had mastered the material, orally and in written form.

Cell Analogy Poster

Not very many students chose to create a cell poster, but those who did gained and in-depth understanding of the cell functions. Students that had a better understanding of different organelles gravitated to this project, and the results were impressive. Students were able to personalize the project and allowed for a different type of creativity than building a 3D model. In one particular project, a group of English Language Learners was able to match the attributes of their favorite futbol players to organelles in the cell. I knew nothing about these different players, and they took pride in being able to teach me about the player’s strengths and relating all their knowledge back to how organelles function in a cell. My favorite analogy was their comparison of mitochondria to Eden Hazard who serves as the “power house” of the team.PhotoGrid_1432688608468

Poster AD

When asked what they meant by “power house” they said that he gave his teammates energy on the field, just like mitochondria in a cell. Overall these students did an excellent job of orally explaining the cell functions, and the formative written assignments were thorough. The summative assessment showed that 4 out of 5 of the students who completed this project demonstrated knowledge of organelle functions, while all of the students could write about the differences between plant and animal cell organelles.

Cell Model

A vast majority of students decided to build a 3D model of a cell out of household items and recycled trash. Working in pairs forced students to use the technical language as they discussed the materials they would use to build each part. One of the most inspiring moments was listening to a group of intermediate ELL students debate over what should be used to construct a vacuole in their plant cell. They ultimately decided on a water bottle as it was the right size and actually held water as it would in the cell. Overall, students scored very well on the oral assessment PhotoGrid_1432776640536(with the exception of the only homogenous ELL group), as well as the formative written assessment. In the oral assessment, I found that the majority of students were able to correctly identify and pronounce the names of various organelles, and explain their function in the cell. This process was done without the aid of any written content. The homogenous ELL group however, struggled with recalling the names of the different organelles hindering their ability to correctly identify the organelle functions. During the formative writing assignment, every student was able to create an explanation of each organelle function and match that function to the proper organelle.

Pre-made Cell Cut Out

The fourth type of project was one that had all the organelles of a plant cell and an animal cell already prepared with labels and explanations. The students had to cutPhotoGrid_1432776322030 out the organelles, place them in the correct cell, and explain their function to me in the oral assessment. This project was created to help two of my students with more intensive special needs overcome the executive functioning demand that is associated with managing a vast array of materials. This simple accommodation proved to be valuable, and allowed those students to work independently on accomplishing the same objective as the rest of the class.

Conclusion

Planning this assignment was not easy, but after the initial heavy lift, I found it to be worthwhile. The writing component that accompanied the project demonstrated student understanding of each organelle and their function, and the oral component offered deeper insight into aspects of the assignment that challenged students.

One week after the project was complete I gave a written assessment in which the students had to identify the function of different organelles and write about 3 differences between an animal and a plant cell. While grading this test, I immediately identify a crucial mistake in planning the project: I did not provide a pre-test by which I could accurately measure growth.

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This is a writing sample from one of my top performing general education students. This student decided to construct a 3-D cell model.
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This is a sample from a English Language Learner who is also on an Individual Education Plan. While he did not score high on the oral portion of the exam, he did very well with recalling vocabulary and key differences between plant and animal cells.

While I was pleased with how well the class did overall, I could still see a gap between my ELLs and other students. A pretest however would help put this gap into perspective, as I would be able assess the gains of each individual student after the project was completed. It would be naive of me to believe that one project-based learning assignment would erase the gap, but this experience has shown me the value of project-based learning.

These few days were filled with qualitative and quantitative data that amounted to tangle learning in my classroom. The hours of engagement, the rich level of content-based discussion, and the higher order thinking exhibited during this project serve as strong evidence that combination of writing techniques and project-based assignments will result in measurable learning for all students.

Below you can find the Rubrics used in this Project:

Cell Anology Poster Rubric

Cell Model Rubric