Pressing Pause to Fold in What Students Need

I recently had the pleasure of working with two fourth grade teachers who were working so very hard. The problem was they were working too hard. I know we all can relate to trying to balance this giant plate full of everything we need to accomplish while trying so hard not to drop it on top of our head, but in this case, for the kids’ sake and their own, they needed to put the plate down and walk away for a minute.

I want you all to know that it’s okay to push the pause button and deal with the issues that get in the way of moving kids forward. Now, I’m not saying you stop following IEPs or attending parent conferences or to abandon the workshop model, but it is okay to hit pause in the curriculum when something isn’t working. In the case of these two classes, we had a combination of needs that we determined through data collection.

  1. A number of students were struggling with routines.
  2. A larger number of students were struggling with the rigor and pace of the first unit.

In order for any workshop to run smoothly, there are routines that need to be in place. These routines need to be taught, consistent, and practiced so that less workshop time is wasted. We need those minilessons to truly be mini because students need the time to independently practice the work. Even as an eighth grade teacher, I would take the time in the first weeks of school to practice the routines in engaging ways, but I want this post to really focus on the second need.

The fourth graders were struggling with the rigor and pace of the unit. The first thing we did was look at the pre-assessment for the unit. When looking at their written responses compared to their running record and NWEA-MAP data, we saw some conflicting results. They were not necessarily struggling readers, but the data did show they were struggling thinkers.

Part of our job as workshop teachers is to get our kids to read and read and read. But just reading is not enough. We also need to teach strategies for thinking about our reading that can be transferred to any text.

The written responses from the pre-assessment were showing more summarizing and not thinking deeper about things like character and theme.

We decided to use the reading progressions, starting with inferring about character, and look at what is expected from each grade level. Since students were only summarizing events and not thinking about character, I looked from each progression and noticed three teaching points within the skill of inferring about characters that could be used to develop their thinking while reading that students need as a foundation before they can do the work of fourth grade readers.

For example, if readers do not have the skills developed to make character theories (third grade), they will struggle with determining what drives a character to make particular decisions (fourth grade).

From what I noticed in the progressions, I was able to create three strategy lessons, each strategy providing a foundation for the next.

Three strategy lessons based off of the learning progressions to push thinking about character

When developing strategy lessons, you can find some tips and actual strategies in the Reading Strategies Book by Jennifer Serravallo, or you can walk yourself through what you do as a reader to meet the goal.

Once I had three strategy lessons to help support readers as they practice developing their thinking about character, I grabbed a book that I could use to model each strategy. I set the minilesson up just like any of the lessons in the units of study so the routine continues to be consistent and predictable.

Basic Outline of a Reading Workshop Session
Session 1 of 3

After reflecting on this lesson, we determined that students would benefit from a tool that listed a variety of character traits to help build vocabulary. I often gave students a binder ring and we would add tools as needed. In my class the notebook, independent reading book, post-its, and toolkit were in their reading folder, but many elementary and middle teachers also use gallon size storage bags.

The next day I introduced the tool and a new strategy to push our thinking.

After this lesson, we used the independent time to move around and check on the traits they noticed yesterday while reading. Readers who didn’t have any post-its from the day before, did the work right then and there through some guided practice. They read a page or so of their independent reading book aloud to us, and we listened in for what the character was doing, saying, and thinking and prompting them through the strategy.

Those who had post-its we checked to be sure they were noting about traits and not feelings and providing any tips that might help.

At the end of this session, I took three minutes as students joined me back in the meeting area to show them how I took a post-it note or two and wrote long to explain my thinking. We set the timer for 3-4 minutes and students wrote fast and furious about a sticky or two they chose before sharing their thinking with their turn and talk partner.

I highly recommend this work for a number of reasons, but most importantly it provides daily practice which builds engagement and stamina. A short burst of writing each day also allows students the opportunity to determine for themselves what is important to explore, giving them the choice and ownership that they need to develop their thinking about reading without relying on being told what to think about. This foundation is essential for students to have developed long before entering upper grades.

This type of writing is not meant to take more than a few minutes with time to share with partners; however, by doing short bursts each day, students will gain confidence and also have a record of their thinking over the course of a book to go back and choose something to really explore in longer and more formal writing such as text dependent or literary analysis.

On the third day we added one more strategy lesson that had students using the work they were already doing from the two days prior and creating theories about character.

During the active engagement, one partnership came up with a theory about Ruben that blew us away!

“Ruben is the kind of kid who takes responsibility for his actions.”

fourth grade partnership

During the independent work time, we continued to conference with students to see the kind of work they were doing and offer any additional tips or strategies to support them. Again we walked through a strategy right then and there with their independent reading book with anyone who was struggling.

Time to Push Play!

Now that students were exposed to three foundation strategies to work with, the teachers were ready to press play again on the unit. The minilessons in the unit are rigorous and provide exposure, but not all of the students may be ready to implement the strategies from the unit anchor chart until they have a more solid foundation to build on.

Normally we teach these foundational strategies in small group, but since the data showed this foundation was lacking for the majority of the students, we folded in this three session If…Then…type of mini unit. Not every fourth grade classroom across the district has the same needs, but by using your data, determining needs, and paying close attention to the learning progressions, you may need to fold in some different If…Then…units and mini units at various points throughout the year in order to best support the students who are sitting in front of you.

Moving forward, the students will not only use the anchor chart for the unit to guide their thinking about their independent reading but also have the option of using any strategies taught in the If…Then… mini unit or from small group and conferring lessons.

While meeting with the fourth grade teachers after pressing play, the teachers were happy to report that the engagement and confidence in their fourth graders was evident. I could feel their sigh of relief and renewed excitement in their work.

Because this type of scaffolding work is so dependent on the students who are currently in front of you, I am happy to meet with any teams that feel like their students are struggling with the pace and rigor of the units at any point in the year. Together we can support student needs!

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