Revising HARD! Changing Our Classroom Writing Culture

You should have seen the first draft of this post.

Yikes.
Revising often takes a back seat in our writing block. But revising "hard" not only leads to better writing, it creates stronger writers. Here's how to change your classroom writing culture. (The Thinker Builder)

You probably would have clicked the back-arrow pretty quickly. And a buck gets ten you'd never have returned to my blog again because of the scattered, drab, downright stanky taste left in your mouth from your visit.

Seriously, you would have been looking at a big ol' hot mess.

But here's the thing: I knew it was scattered. I knew it was drab. I knew it was a stanky hot mess.

And I was good with that. Why?

Because I knew the revisions would be coming. I knew I would make my crappy first draft better. A lot better. All the way to the level you are reading now.

How did I know?

Because that's just how I write. I write something. And then I revise it...hard. And continue to do so until it's right. And a buck gets ten that's how most writers write. Improving something that's there is just easier than trying to get it all right the first time. But this isn't the norm with students.


WHAT REVISING IS (AND ISN'T)

For students, making a revision is seen as "fixing" something. And if something needs fixing, it had to be wrong in the first place. And students don't like to be wrong. I can't blame them. In much of the other work students do (e.g. math homework, spelling tests, any tests), being correct the first time is the desired outcome. And this mentality spills over into their writing. The revising stage of the writing process often gets whittled down to what amounts to glorified editing: a little tweak here, a little correction there, an extra adjective over there.

Revising is more than that.

At it's core, revising is all about making decisions, with each choice intended to make something better.

If you revise your living room hard, you aren't simply fluffing the pillows or vacuuming dog hair. You are painting walls, rearranging furniture, ripping up floors. Revising your writing hard involves big changes and small changes, adding and eliminating, rearranging and experimenting.


WHAT'S THE BIG DEAL?

When the revising stage gets passed over, or is done superficially, massive opportunities to improve the piece of writing go missed.

But more importantly, opportunities to improve as a writer also go missed.

I used to think the easiest way to become a better writer was to write a lot. But just as important to improving as a writer is revising your own writing. It's here in the trenches of looking critically at our writing, of making decisions about what's working and experimenting with alternatives... it's here where we learn and grow. A ton.

And as revising becomes a more natural part of how students write, you're going to see another benefit creep up. When students know (like, really believe in their hearts) that their writing gets better when they spend time revising it, the initial drafting phase actually becomes a lot less stressful. Students don't need to have everything figured out prior to getting started. Stuck on a part? Give it a shot and revise it later.


CHANGING THE CULTURE

So how do you get a revising-filled writing culture in your classroom?

Step One: Set an Example

It starts with you. If students never see you revise, don't expect to see them do much either. 

Maybe you already incorporate modeled writing, where you introduce a new writing skill or strategy by modeling it in front of the class. Whether you realize it or not though, you aren't just modeling the new skill. You are modeling all of the surrounding writing behaviors, too.

It used to be that when I intended to do some teaching through modeled writing, I would plan the writing piece ahead of time, often writing the entire thing on a sticky note so when I went to write it on chart paper during the lesson, I could do it perfectly without a second thought.

But such silky smooth modeled writing is costly. Even though it allowed me to focus my attention on teaching a new writing strategy or skill, my surrounding writing behaviors said, "Hey kids, watch me suddenly pump out this perfectly organized, polished paragraph without even breaking a sweat. This is how writers write. Don't you want to be able to do this?"

Yikes! Unintended and indirect though it may have been, that was the way students always saw me write. So I changed. I stopped prepping the writing I would do in front of the class. (Don't get me wrong, I still had a plan for the lesson, but I didn't plan every little detail of the written model.) I stopped trying to write a final draft right off the bat. I intentionally revised portions of what I modeled, thinking aloud so students heard the process.

Writing this way in front of students took some getting used to for me. The getting stuck, the messing up, the crossing out, the struggle, the muddling through. But it was ten times more realistic. And I'm telling you, the muddling is exactly what kids NEED to see. They need to see it in order to break down the stereotype that a "good writer" writes exactly what they want right away. They need to see the unsettled feeling that it's not quite right yet, the hem and haw over a single word, the move-on-and-come-back.

These behaviors do not show weakness. It's an authentic path to making the writing strong.

While I do want to end up with a strong model of the new skill I want students to practice, I also want to model how to get there. It takes a little more time during the lesson, sure. But I also saved time by not planning out every little word and phrase ahead of time. And the more students saw me revise the writing I did in front of them, the more natural revising became.


Step Two: Remove Obstacles

Help change the classroom writing culture by removing obstacles that get in the way of revising hard.

One obstacle that always pops up is simply where to revise. Often, students fill their paper with drafting, which makes it cumbersome to make significant revisions. Little tricks can help, like skipping lines or drawing arrows, but I've got a solution that sets up the rough draft in a way that's super conducive to revising hard. You can read about it right HERE, a post I wrote for the Upper Elementary Snapshots collaborative blog.

Time can be an obstacle, especially if we're trying to add a bunch more revising into an already cramped writing block. Remove this obstacle by shortening the length of the piece of writing. Instead of having students write, say, five pages, scale down to one to two pages. This gives students more time (and less to deal with) when revising.

A third obstacle, which can often be the largest, is student motivation. Revising hard is a different way of looking at your writing, one that accepts the idea that your first attempt is not your best. We know this idea doesn't come naturally to most students. Add to this the fact that many students will see the idea of more revising as simply more work, and motivating students to revise hard can be a challenge. But once the tide turns, it's like a snowball effect.

Shorter pieces of writing naturally help the motivation factor for some students. However, I've found two other keys to be even more instrumental: a meaningful topic and past success.

Students have to be writing about an idea that is meaningful to them in order to care enough to revise it hard. When the topic or story is close to their heart, it's easier for students to want to do it justice.

Your attempts at moving to a culture of big-time revising will be short-lived if students do not see the fruits of their labor. Make it a priority to highlight the difference in quality, like the before/after photos on an HGTV room makeover. Students need to see how much a piece of writing has improved as a direct result of revising it hard. They need anchor examples of personal success which can then serve as motivation for future writing.


Step Three: Teach Specific Revising Strategies

Back in the day, I often found myself asking students to revise their work, assuming they would know what to do, and then I'd get frustrated when I saw their piddly little attempts at making their writing better. But my efforts to explain what it meant to revise were general, even vague.

How did I expect students to do something they've never really done before unless I taught them how. So I began to develop very specific, practical revising strategies, some that could stand alone as a revising lesson and activity, and many that could be applied to whatever it is students were writing.

And students' revising "toolbox" grew fat.


I'm going to be sharing a bunch of these revising strategies with you in my next blog post, but for now, step back and think about your own writing and the revising you do, whether it be an email to an administrator, a post to your classroom blog, or the welcome letter for Meet-the-Teacher Night.

What little nuggets of revising gold can you extract and share with your students?

*   *   *

Let's saturate our writing block with undertones of improving what we write, because developing a culture of revising breeds stronger, more thoughtful writers.

So revise.

Revise hard.









(Hey there. You're still here? Cool. I thought it would be interesting, as an example of how much revising this particular post went through, to show you exactly how the title for this post evolved. Below is the list, from where it started to where it ended.)
- How to Be a Better Model-Writer
- How to Do Modeled Writing Like a Boss
- Why You Should Be Writing in Front of Your Students
- Flipping the Narrative on Modeled Writing
- Messing Up: The Most Important Part of Modeled Writing
- The Most Important Thing About Modeled Writing
(Side Note: At this point, I realized that what I wanted to say was much more about revising than about modeled writing.)
- A Revising Revolution!
- Revising Revising
- Revising How We Go About Revising (Hint: It Starts with You)
- Revising Hard: A Change We Need
- Revising Hard: Shifting to a Revising Mindset
- Revising Hard: Revising the Writing Culture in Our Classroom
- Revising Hard! Changing the Writing Culture in Our Classroom
- Revising Hard! Changing Our Classroom Writing Culture

How a Simple THOUGHT BUBBLE Can Send Students Deep into Literature

When you read, do you ever think about what a character is thinking?

This is not a trick question.

You do, right? Of course you do. You may not even realize the extent to which you do it.

If we slow down the process (like, The Matrix slow-motion slow), an experienced, engaged reader gives a lot of consideration to a character's thoughts.

Let me give you an example.

Let's say I'm reading Harry Potter (the first one) and I'm in the part towards the beginning when Harry's Uncle Vernon refuses to allow Harry to open any of the letters from Hogwarts, and goes to great lengths to keep them from Harry, even moving the whole family to a dreary rock of an island in the middle of the sea.

So what do I think Harry is thinking?

I think Harry must be streaming several lines of thought. He detests living with his Aunt and Uncle and Dudley but has become rather hopeless that his situation will improve, and then along comes a letter addressed to him. He allows himself a glimmer of hope, but then his Uncle destroys the letter as well as the subsequent letters that follow. Harry is probably coming to terms with the idea that his Uncle will go to any length to keep him from opening the letter. Which is a bummer. 

But. 

But, he also has to be thinking about the logic that whatever is inside those letters must be pretty significant if his Uncle is willing to move the family to the middle of nowhere in the middle of a storm just to keep more letters from being delivered. Which is intriguing. 

And Harry also must have given some thought to the persistence of whomever is sending the letters. If they've continued to mail him dozens of letters, hundreds even, why wouldn't they continue until he has received one? Which is promising.

Find out how to use thought bubbles as a jumping off point for inferring a character's thinking and making sense of it.I want students to be able to do what I just did there.

I want them to be able to use a character's words and actions and the surrounding events given to them by the author and be able to infer a character's thinking.

But not only do I want students to be able to infer those thoughts, I want them to be able to make sense of them. To make decisions and draw conclusions based on them.

But not only do I want students to make sense of those thoughts, I want them to be able to then explain it all. To verbalize it. Even to write it.

Whoa.

That's a lot.

But by slowing down the process of inferring and making sense of a character's thoughts (you know, Matrix slow-mo)--breaking it down, talking it out, recording it on paper--students begin to do it more naturally when they read.

So what?

What's the big deal? Why do I want students to be able to do all of this? Three reasons: When we become adept at thinking about what a character is thinking,
  1. we understand the character better and more deeply. We understand the choices and actions he/she makes, and can even better predict future choices and actions from that character.
  2. we connect to the character. We get to know him/her and the similarities to our own life. We can identify with, relate to, even learn from that character.
  3. we really hit some Common Core standards full on in the face. (Check CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.3, CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.4.3, and CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.5.2 and 5.3.)
So let's dig into how to get students going. Enter, the thought bubble.
https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B5ePvBTfGoXfNzUzR3FQRDA1ODg/view?usp=sharing
I love using a thought bubble because it gives students a concrete starting point for something that's not very concrete. And it becomes an anchor symbol that helps trigger the thinking about a character's thinking.

Before we get too far into a character's thoughts, it's really important to first show students how to slow down and explain their own thoughts.


via GIPHY

To practice recording students' own thinking, with lots of elaboration and details, try this preliminary activity:

Have students get out a notebook and pencil and prepare a large, empty thought bubble on their page. It should fill most of the page. Make sure you have one on the board, too.

Then go behind your desk and without students seeing, put something small, like a stapler or a glue bottle, in your hand and then hide it by draping a towel over it. Bring the covered item to the front of the room and dramatically explain to students that you have a surprise addition for the classroom. Jiggle the item slightly, as if it moved on its own, and then whisper-scold it to stay still.

Then, without revealing what the item is, say something like, "Let's pause right there for a moment, boys and girls. I want you to write down what you are thinking. What thoughts went through your mind when I brought this thing out? Write inside your thought bubble. Be honest, and be as detailed as you can."

After a few minutes, have a few students share their writing. (All the while, you are holding the covered item in your hand.) As each student shares, prod him/her and the class with questions to help them see opportunities for further elaboration.

Maybe a students writes, "I'm wondering what is under the towel," but after some prompting it could turn into, "My teacher just brought up something in her hand but it's covered with a towel. I'm wondering what is under the towel. Is this a joke? It looks like it just moved a little bit, so maybe it's alive. But Mrs. T. hates critters, so why in the world would she be holding something alive? I think she's just messing with us. But why is she messing with us? And even if it's not alive, I still would like to know what she is holding. Maybe it's a rock. Maybe we're going to do a unit on rocks."

Finally, reveal the item to students. "Don't you love it, boys and girls?" Egg them on a bit, and then stop them again. "Okay boys and girls, I want you to draw another thought bubble, and write down your thinking again. I want you to try to be even more detailed than before." 

Give students a couple of minutes to write. As they work, turn to the board and write the words, "If I were you..." outside the thought bubble you drew and record a model example. Maybe something like, "When Mrs. T. took the towel off of the stapler, I was outraged! How could she think we'd enjoy this 'new addition' to our classroom? But then I calmed down a bit and realized she was probably doing all of this just to give us something to write our thinking about. But still, why couldn't she have done it with a gerbil or a frog or something? Like a new class pet. Would that have been so hard?! Oh dear, the outrage is returning!"

Before sharing with the class this time, have students pair up and read their thought bubbles to each other, comparing them and making suggestions on how to elaborate even more.

*   *   *

In your next lesson, transition to the thoughts of a character in a story. Refer to the elaborate thinking students recorded of their own and how they'll now apply this technique to explain a character's thinking.

Prepare a large thought bubble to model with a picture book. You can download a copy of the thought bubble you see in the images below by clicking HERE


Some of my favorite books to use with this lesson are: The Old Woman Who Named Things, by Cynthia Rylant, The Gardener, by Sarah Stewart, any Henry and Mudge book (yes, even for upper elementary), Some Birthday! by Patricia Polacco, and Owl Moon, by Jane Yolen.

Gather students with their notebooks and pencils. Read aloud a portion of the story, and then pause at a certain point to record a character's thoughts in your thought bubble. As you write, point out evidence from the story, both from text and illustrations, that helped you infer the character's thoughts. (Which sort of means you're thinking about your thinking about the character's thinking. Whoa. Never mind, don't think about that.)


Continue reading. Then pause at another point and have students draw a thought bubble in their notebook and record what the character is thinking. As students write, erase your own thought bubble and fill it in with the character's new thinking. Then have a brief discussion with students about what they wrote and what you wrote.

*   *   *

When students get used to thinking about and recording a character's thoughts in detail, it's a good time to begin transitioning into doing it more naturally. As a stepping stone, have students record "thought bubble thoughts" on sticky notes.


If you do a class novel read aloud, use it to model for students how to find an important moment to pause, and how to record notes about what the character is thinking. Show students that since the sticky note is small, we have to be more succinct in how we write, maybe in a "jot it down" notes-style rather than complete sentences, but be clear that the thinking stays just as intense.

After modeling a sticky-note-thought-bubble with your novel read aloud, give all students a sticky note. Continue reading and choose a new spot to pause for students to practice for themselves. Discuss the sticky notes or collect them for a quick formative assessment check.


Choosing a common spot in the book for all students will help you assess how each student is progressing. Don't forget that having students discuss their inferences about a character's thinking can be just as meaningful as making the inferences.

It's also really interesting to use the thought bubbles to infer the thinking of a supporting character, not just the main character. Particularly with a book written in first-person, where the main character gives much of his/her thinking just by narrating the story, try changing students' perspectives and digging into the thoughts of one of the other characters in a scene.

Eventually, have students practice recording sticky-note-thought-bubbles with self-selected books they are reading in class. Keep the large laminated thought bubble handy to use with future texts and to be a reminder to students as they read on their own.

*   *   *

Ah, thought bubbles. They are such simple little things, but with the right guidance and modeling, they can be the jumping off point for some seriously deep and rewarding reading work.

Come read my post about the Thought Bubble's more outspoken cousin, the Speech Bubble, on the Upper Elementary Snapshots collaborative blog. You can read it here.








Credit: Thought Bubble clip art created by Sarah Pecorino Illustration.

9 Ways to Differentiate Your Whole Group Instruction

Differentiating your instruction can be overwhelming. I get it. 

When you hear the word "differentiation" do you automatically start breaking your class into small groups? Or maybe you start scouring Pinterest for ways to differentiate the task students will do after you teach a lesson.

What I want to share with you here are ways you can differentiate your whole group instruction... tailoring the teaching you do to your whole class so it better fits each of your student's needs.

Here are 9 ways you can differentiate your whole group instruction. These differentiation ideas will really help you meet each student's needs during the lessons you already teach.

Hang on now. Doesn't differentiation butt heads with a whole group setting? How can you differentiate a lesson being taught to the whole class?

Here are nine ways:

PRE-TEACH TO A SMALL GROUP
Let's say you are planning to introduce a new reading strategy tomorrow, "synthesizing" for instance. You know this first lesson will probably go right over the heads of your lower readers and you'll be playing catch-up during guided reading for the next two weeks.

Instead, today try pre-teaching the main focus of the lesson to that small group of students. Do it just like you plan to do it tomorrow to the whole group. It's like you are letting these students in on a little secret. They'll be one-up on their classmates heading into tomorrow, a feeling they rarely have when it comes to reading, and you'll have them primed for the content to really sink in. Plus, you'll get a feel for the flow and the wording, like a dry run.


You don't have to choose your lower level students either. Even pulling six random students for a pre-teaching group still gives you six students during tomorrow's whole group lesson who will have a basic understanding and will know what to expect, able to help those nearby whom you can't always reach right away.

ARRANGE STUDENTS' SEATING
Where students sit can be effective in helping you differentiate your lesson. I like bringing students to a gathering area on the floor, having them sit where they choose. Then I do a quick scan and make some changes: "Charlie, switch spots with Luke. Anna, switch with Tommy. And Ria, you switch with Harley." 

My goal is to move some students, who I expect to struggle, forward so I can interact with them more easily. To avoid any stigma getting attached to which students I move, I don't always move the same students, and I always make an "unexpected move." Maybe I move Super-Smart-Samantha to the front, just so the class doesn't start thinking the movers always need help.

If I did any pre-teaching, I'm also looking to spread out those students so they can help coach others. But in general, I'm trying to set a tone that says the spots students pick for themselves are not permanent. I want to be able to move Tanya up close to me halfway through the lesson, after I notice a totally confused look on her face, and it won't be a big deal at all to the rest of the class.

KEEP A VISIBLE RECORD
No matter how eloquent you are with your words, your visual learners are going to benefit greatly from seeing the lesson, rather than just hearing it. So as you teach, keep a visible record of what you are saying, whether it's with an anchor chart or simply using the board.


A huge benefit that comes along with making your teaching visible is the natural tendency to simplify and organize information when recording it. I encourage you to play up this tendency: use lists, charts, graphic organizers, and symbols. What you are really doing is conveying your message a second time, just in a different form. And by doing so, you are connecting to more students.

CRAFT QUESTIONS CAREFULLY
Changing how we ask questions to the class during a lesson can help with differentiation. Specifically, try using these two types:

Split Question
With a split question, you actually ask two related questions, one more sophisticated than the other, and have students answer the one that better fits their current understanding. It might sound like, "Boys and girls, I'm going to write two questions on the board, and I want you to jot down your thinking to the one question that challenges you just right. Either, 'which detail tells us the most about Roy?' or, 'why do you think the author told us so much about Roy's shoes?'"

Build-On Question
With a build-on question, you ask the class a question and give an additional step for those who finish the first part. "Boys and girls, try highlighting the words in this paragraph that personify the wind. If you finish that, write down another way the author could have used personification for the wind."

BE ACTIVE DURING TURN & TALKS
When you have students turn and talk to a neighbor about something related to the lesson you are teaching, you are adding student engagement and an easy way to formatively assess students' progress. But if you get in there and get involved in these turn and talks, you add a way to differentiate your instruction, too. 


Pose a question to the class or statement to think about and have them turn and talk about it with a neighbor. Then try popping into one or two of the conversations that ensue. As you listen, be aware of opportunities to differentiate: to push some partners further and to help some get back on track.

GIVE MORE WAIT-TIME
An easy way to add a bit of differentiation to your lesson is to simply give more wait-time. When you ask the class to share their thinking, don't immediately call on the first student who raises her hand. If you wait before allowing a response (even if you end up calling on that same student), you are giving your lower students more time to process and think things through.

USE A STUDENT ASSISTANT
Bring up a student or two during your instruction to use as an assistant, even for the simplest of things: holding up a poster, pointing to items on the chart, scribing what you say, modeling an action (e.g. "Every time we use the word 'synthesize' Henry is going to do his special move.") Your assistant's tasks may not even be truly necessary, but it's an easy way to pluck a struggling student from the crowd and engage him before he tunes out, OR to give a thriving student some extra responsibility.

 
My favorite, and simplest, way to involve a student assistant is during a lesson in which I would model my own thinking. Instead of explaining my thinking out loud to the class, I attribute that same thinking to the student who I pulled up with me. "Now, boys and girls, let's say Henry is a synthesizing master. So right at this moment, I know he's thinking about how this new text detail is going to fit into what he already understands from the story. Isn't that right, Henry?"

VARY AN ELEMENT
Think about differentiating one element of the lesson. For a lesson on a reading strategy, you might provide two or three different texts to use, each at a different level. Or if you're confident the skill you are teaching could apply to any text, have students choose their own book to bring with them to practice the new strategy that you'll teach them.

In a writing lesson, try varying the topic in order to interest more students, since the skill probably isn't based on the topic with which you'll use to practice it. Maybe you are teaching paragraph structure with an anchor chart. Instead of modeling with a topic you had prepared, try splitting the chart in half, asking volunteers to suggest two topics, and model the paragraph structure techniques with both topics, one on each half of the chart. Or dip into #7 above, and use a student assistant to model with one topic while you model with the other.

ALLOW A HEAD START
After introducing a new strategy or skill within your lesson, you often want to give students a chance to respond, reflect, or try it for themselves before you move on to the next stage. Especially with something brand new, try allowing a head start, and then following up with some help. "Boys and girls, I want you to try writing in your notebook what the author is really trying to tell you in the section we just read. Give it a go. Now, if you need a little jump start, I'll be giving some guidance in just a moment."


Differentiation need not always require drastic changes to your lesson. Utilizing a few of the ideas I've shared will help your whole group instruction better sink in to each student.

As you transition from the teaching to the task with which students will use to practice, be sure to read about the 8 Practical Ways to Differentiate a Student Task I wrote for Upper Elementary Snapshots.

*   *   *

https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/Readers-Notebook-Response-Pages-for-Literature-HALF-PAGE-SET-766284

If you're looking for differentiated resources to help your students respond to their reading, be sure to check out my Reader's Notebook Response Pages for Literature or for Informational Text.

https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/BUNDLE-Readers-Notebook-Response-Pages-HALF-PAGE-SET-1065128

The pages are differentiated at three levels to meet each student right where they need to be.







My Favorite Way to Get Students Discussing & Defending

Growing up, I was a little obsessed with lists, to the great annoyance of my big sister. A list was often the cause of vast stretches of silence during our family car trips. The preliminary back-and-forth went something like:

Amanda, reading Babysitters' Club #578 in the car.
Michael, not reading in the car (ya' know, motion-sickness): "So, whatcha readin' there, sis?"
Amanda: Sideways glance. Quick flash of the cover. Back to reading.
Michael: "Is that a good one?"
Amanda: "Yep."
Michael: "Like how good?"
Amanda, sensing me spiraling out of control: "Just good."
Michael: "Well, like is it better than the last one? I bet it's not better than the first one, is it? Would you put it in the top ten Babysitters' Club books of all time? Wait, what are the top ten Babysitters' Club books of all time? Could you rank them? In order, from one to ten please."
Amanda, eyes rolling: "No."

Read about a unique yet versatile way to engage students in discussion, where they develop and defend their opinions and analyze each others'. (from The Thinker Builder)
Okay, so maybe the list itself wasn't so much the cause of the sighs and ensuing silence as was the person trying to force said list onto the sister.

But there's just something about a good, ordered list that I enjoy. The 100 Greatest Hitters of All Time, the 25 Best Seinfeld Episodes, Top Vacation Spots on a Budget... whatever it is, I've always liked dissecting them, especially lists with an element of opinion.

Over the years I honed my craft, and as a teacher I began using my mad "list skills" to get students thinking critically, discussing possibil-ities, and defending opinions. A major part of my evolution from Annoying Little Brother to List Master Facilitator was reducing the list load from ten (or more) to just three... a top 3 list. 

A Top-3 List.

It sounds like such a specific, "maybe-I'll-use-it-once" idea, but actually it's super versatile. Any setting in which you ask a question, the potential for a top-3 list is there, lurking, waiting to pounce on your students and drag them into deeper waters.

Just so we're on the same page, let me give you an example of how to take a commonly asked question during a reading lesson and turn it into one that can spark a rich, powerful little discussion, all based on a top-3 list.


Did you see what happened there? We morphed a simple question (which has its place, sure) into one with layers and meat. Using a phrase like "most important" within a key question opens the door for opinion. It automatically encourages students to start mentally organizing characters based on their importance in the story.

When asked for only the single most important character, students can usually pluck one pretty quickly from the upper crust of characters (unless the story has two protagonists, like Jack and Annie from the Magic Tree House series for example, which would be an interesting mental decision). But when the question expands to asking for the top 3 most important characters, ranked in order of importance, the door opens even wider. And if you have students create their lists with a partner, the door pretty much gets blown off its hinges. The task...

...involves brainstorming and listing

Now with three answers needed instead of just one, students think more broadly about the possibilities, the characters in a book in this case. They think back through the book, maybe creating a list of choices from which to choose the finalists. They snatch up the main character or two, but must also consider several supporting characters for their remaining spots... better jot them all down for now.


...involves making (a lot of) judgments and decisions

Creating an ordered list, where the chosen order is up to students, requires lots of decision-making. For this question, which characters are more important than other characters? Who's not going to make the cut? And once the top three characters have been identified, who will rank higher and lower than each other? Who gets the top spot? Who gets number two and three?

...involves developing criteria and reasons

In order to make good decisions and judgments, students start to form criteria to help them choose (which may come naturally to some, and to others may take some prompting). This question is all about the importance of the character. So what factors matter? What exactly makes a character important? Is a bigger role proportional to a character's importance in the story? Does a character need to be part of every chapter to be considered? Does a character have to be "good" to be important? Should "bad guys" be considered? Can a character have a small but important role? Is there a character who appears less often but makes a big impact?

The criteria students value will give them a base for making the tough decisions in a thoughtful way.

...involves negotiation and reasoning

If students work with a partner to create their top three list, they'll be negotiating with each other on what factors matter most when making decisions, practicing key reasoning and compromising skills. The task consists of so many variables it's the perfect situation to involve another person. It's important, however, for students to look at their partnership like a single unit throughout the process, not one against the other, and save the debating for the whole class discussion.

...involves discussing and defending

Bring the class together after pairs have created their top three lists for a class discussion, and with only a few well-timed prompting questions, you'll find students motivated to take a stance, share and defend their opinions, analyze others' decisions, and even be open to revisions of their own. That last part can be tricky with questions that are more personal, like "What's your favorite...?", but our "What's the most important...?" question is one we can help students try to look at objectively, considering factors and criteria other classmates bring up during a discussion.

Here's one way to guide a discussion like this, using Charlotte's Web as a just-finished read aloud: 

So what do you think, boys and girls... who are the top three most important characters from our book, Charlotte's Web? Who'd like to share their list to get us started? (sharing) Okay, so tell us why you put Wilbur in your number one spot. (sharing) Who agrees with that? Raise your hand if you also have Wilbur as the number one most important character? Do your reasons match? What else makes Wilbur so important? (sharing)  

Not everyone has Wilbur #1, so who else? Charlotte? Why her? (sharing) Interesting. So let's dig into that more in a moment to see if we can decide who should be at the top of our list. But I'm curious: does everyone have Wilbur and Charlotte in their first two spots? (sharing)  

What about the third spot on your list? (sharing) Let's dig into Fern's situation more: if I asked for the most important characters from the first chapter, I think we'd all agree that Fern would be close to the top. But what about the story as a whole? How did you go about judging Fern's importance? (sharing) Let's discuss Templeton. How important is he? Whose list did he make? (sharing)  

Take a minute and talk to your partner about your list. See if there are any changes you'd like to make (talking). Now let's get back to the Wilbur vs. Charlotte discussion. Who really deserves the title of most important character? (sharing)...


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We've been working with the same sample question for awhile now, but many questions you ask during your reading time could be styled into a top-3 list.


With the question above, moving from the word "favorite" to "memorable" removes some of the subjectivity while keeping it an opinion-oriented response. Prompt students to think about what exactly makes a part "memorable" to them: action? emotion? a twist?

What about a top-3 list to go along with an informational book?


Here we move from a "check-up" style question that centers on what students learned about the topic of the text, to a question that centers less on the topic and more about determining the importance of each piece of information read. Prompt students to think about what makes a fact important. How closely should your chosen facts relate to the main topic? If you were asked for the three most interesting facts, how would your list change?

In my photos you may have noticed students working on half-sheet top-3 list response pages. Click HERE or the image below to download these pages for all three sample top-3 list questions from this post. (Yep, it's free.)

https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B5ePvBTfGoXfMGgzRVFTUDdrUUk/view?usp=sharing

We've focused our top-3 list questions on reading topics, which is awesome, but I also expanded the idea into a morning work framework with some fun topics like, What are your top 3 dream jobs? and Who are the top 3 coolest superheroes?

The process students go through for each topic is broken up into bite-size chunks spread throughout the week, formatted as a presentation to display each morning, and with a student record sheet to go along. Click HERE to see details for Set One.

https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/Morning-Work-with-Meaning-Top-3-Lists-Set-One-2744193

And if you like the half-page notebook style of the top-3 list freebie, you also might want to check out my popular "Reader's Notebook Response Pages for Literature." Click HERE for details.

https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/Readers-Notebook-Response-Pages-for-Literature-HALF-PAGE-SET-766284

If I were making a list of my top 3 favorite ways to get students discussing their thinking and defending their opinions, using top-3 lists would definitely be at the top of my list.







6 Tips to Give Feedback Like an Effective Coach

Read six tips on how to give effective feedback to students, all of which parallel how a great coach goes about coaching. (The Thinker Builder)My daughters are in gymnastics. We're not on the fast track to Olympic glory mind you, but they each have fun in their own little classes.

I was sitting in the stands with my wife the other day while our girls were out in their groups. I was watching my oldest work on her, um, half-pike saulter with a twist, or a spritz. Yeah that's it, a spritz.

Or something.

But then a little off to the side, in a separate group, I overhear, "Hmm, okay. Not bad. But you're sticking your chest out too far."

It's a coach working with three girls. My wife leans over and whispers, "They're on the team."

I nod. "Gotcha," I whisper back.

The 'team' is for serious, competitive gymnasts. But I didn't need my wife (a competitive gymnast herself growing up) to tell me that. It was pretty obvious. I mean, they were working on double-back Winnebagos and full aerial tuckers for crying out loud.

Or something. Something fancy.

But it wasn't the gymnasts' fancy gymnastics that caught my attention. It was their coach. And for the next few minutes I watched the coach do her coaching thing.

It may as well have been a PD session for teachers. Nuggets of teaching gold abounded, and I've pulled a few out here that center around feedback. So here are six tips on giving effective feedback to students, all stemming from my observations of the gymnastics coach working with her gymnasts.


#1 The Sooner the Better

The coach was right there on the mat with the girls, and as soon as a girl did a tumbling pass, the coach immediately gave feedback to her. The girls expected it. For some attempts the feedback took the form of a short phrase or tip, often relating back to something that particular girl has heard before. Sometimes the feedback was a hand or arm motion, and sometimes it was more interactive, but whatever the feedback was, it happened right after an attempt occurred.

Sometimes it's hard to give immediate feedback to students, especially if we're talking about feedback on written work that you are grading. But when possible, give feedback to a student as soon as possible, while the attempt is fresh. "Live," in-person feedback is even better because you can really get a sense of what the student was trying to do and carry the conversation to the next step. This can be done during one-to-one conferences and small group sessions especially, but also when your large group is working on a task, and you check in with a student or group here and there.

#2 Maintain High Expectations

These gymnasts were on the team, so they already had some serious skill. Everything they did looked great to me, but not everything satisfied the coach's expectations. One girl in particular, the one for which the coach's comments drew my attention in the first place, was working on the same skill several turns in a row. And it would have been so easy for the coach to eventually just say, "Good job," or move her on to a different skill, but she didn't. It was clear that the coach knew what the skill should look like and that the gymnast was ready for it. But the coach was not going to lower the standard, even if that meant changing how she instructed the gymnast several different times.

As a teacher, we also need to have high expectations, keeping in mind what's appropriate for our students. Setting the bar high can sometimes insinuate a fold-your-arms-and-stick-your-nose-up attitude, but just like the gymnastics coach did, you can set the bar high and then scaffold instruction to help reach that bar.

#3 Be Honest yet Constructive

The first piece of feedback I heard the coach give--"Hmm, okay. Not bad. But you're sticking your chest out too far."--is a great example of giving honest, constructive feedback. It was given in a conversational tone, but in a straightforward, clear manner. It was short and to the point: no beating around the bush.

Be real with students. They will appreciate your honesty about what they are trying to get better at, because they also know you will help them do it better. Being direct and honest with your feedback also will save you time! I know it can be more difficult with a student who is really struggling with something, but as long as your response includes something constructive, something that helps him/her move forward on the next attempt, then your directness will pay off.

#4 Get them to feel it

After two attempts at the particular tumbling pass, the coach changed her feedback strategy. She got in there with the gymnast, taking her arms into the correct position, placing a hand on her tummy, and even boosting the gymnast into the air midway through the next attempt so she could feel what it was supposed to feel like.

In the classroom, we often will follow up a feedback statement with modeling, like: "You didn't read it with expression. Here, listen to me read it... Did you hear the difference?" Sounds pretty effective, right? But I encourage you to go further than just modeling. What if the coach would have only done the tumbling pass herself as feedback, like: "There. See the difference, young gymnast?" The gymnast might have seen the difference, but that doesn't mean she could do it. By moving the gymnast's body differently, the coach helped her feel the difference.

So try to connect your feedback and your modeling with getting the student to feel it. Not in the same way as a gymnast, of course. Guide the student through another attempt, maybe like: "You didn't read with expression. Here, listen to me read it. Now read it with me. Match my voice... wait, did you hear that? My voice rose; your voice needs to rise too. Let's do that part again."

This type of feedback and subsequent guidance is really the essence of good coaching, isn't it?

#5 More encouragement than praise

Something I did not hear much from the gymnastics coach was praise. Not a lot of "good job" or "that was awesome." Instead, she encouraged. The difference? Praise is about what already happened. Encouragement is about what's next. Instead of praising a gymnast on what she just did, the coach pointed out what was correct or incorrect, in an honest, constructive manner (like we talked about in tip 3). She followed this up with a bit of encouragement for what the gymnast was to do next. "On the next one, really reach straight up. You can do it."

Giving too much praise can change students' mindset to one that simply tries to please you, instead of one that tries to grow and get better. But you can still be positive by encouraging students. An encouraging comment keeps you and the student moving forward, looking ahead with a positive attitude. Giving praise might feel very positive, but it can also form an underlying current of judgment. And we want to be more of a coach than a judge.

#6 See the Big Picture

For the entire time I watched, the gymnasts were working on only one skill. It clearly fit into a fuller, more complicated tumbling pass, which I assume fit into a complete routine. Though the coach was isolating a certain piece to improve upon, even I could tell there was a "bigger picture" involved by the way the girls entered and exited the tumbling pass. And it's this big picture that helped guide the coach's feedback.

When giving feedback as a teacher, keep the bigger picture in mind. It can help guide how you respond to a student's attempt. You know the stages of developing the skill, and where the skill fits into the scope of other connected skills.

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Students need feedback. And trust me, I know it's hard to feel like you're giving enough of it. But maybe instead of worrying about giving more, first try to make the feedback you do give more effective, maybe by taking a page from the gymnastics coach that I watched for a few minutes the other day.


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