Literacy Daily Tune-ups: a welcome to a feast

The kids sit at their table places (which let all of them face the front of the room without having to twist around too much.) I’m standing near my little desk, where my literacy tune-up binder is open. I ask a question, or give a prompt:

  • Write three compound words and show where the syllables divide. We don’t give prizes, but everyone knows that it’s pretty cool to have four or even five consonants in a row, as in worthwhile.
  • Write words in which o says its own name. That lets us compare ways: with the help of silent e after a consonant, or with the help of an in a vowel blend, or before certain consonant blends, as in cold, or in peculiar short words like O!
  • Write a sentence that uses their, there, and they’re. (“All in the same sentence?” they ask, and I say, “Yes,” knowing they will come up, collectively, with a range of sentences, many funny, a few poignant, and at least one involving pink cake, since that seems to be important lately.
  • Write an interrogative sentence.

literacy tuneups

The students write their responses on individual whiteboards about the size of printer paper, using erasable markers for which I will still be apologizing to the environment long after I’ve stopped teaching. Unfortunately, no other material works as well. Kids can’t resist writing on whiteboards with those vivid and deliciously slippery erasable markers. Of course, the plastic barrels of the markers will last two-thirds of forever in landfills. Please, one of my past students, or a reader of this blog, invent a biodegradable erasable marker, and then the karma will balance out.

When everyone seems ready, I ask students to raise their whiteboards, using “the international raise your whiteboard hand signal,” a swooping wave. Of course I made up the idea that it’s an international signal. It does work, though–it means that everyone sees everyone’s contributions at once. There’s no prize for being first, no incentive to rush.

If I see lots of kids done and waiting, I’ll say, “Write another sentence,” or “Write as many words as you can think of, that fit the prompt.”

If someone is clearly baffled, I say, “Don’t worry–you’ll get it on the next round.” As much as possible, I try to run enough rounds of the same type of prompt to give everyone a chance to catch on; few enough so we have time for other important things; and playful enough so it’s not boring for any kids who already have that skill down pat.

Once all the white boards are raised, we look around the room–not to see who got it right and who got it wrong, but to notice variation and creativity within the direction. I read aloud some of the responses, and try to make sure that every student’s response is read aloud at some point in each lesson. Sometimes, I ask kids to read their own responses. Whenever possible, I ask them to notice and describe the patterns they see.

We’re not about single correct or incorrect answers. We’re language scientists collecting evidence. We’re language artists or gymnasts, sharing our moves.

We’re also language connoisseurs having fun. It really is fun, not just for me, but for the kids, who clamor for a tune-up if I try to leave it out on an unusually compressed day.

Meanwhile, every time we do this–daily is the target–I learn an enormous amount about every kid in the class, and where they are on their learning journeys.

A way to think about language skills lessons

Several thousand years ago, at a workshop about whole language learning, a participant asked, “I can see how good it is to give kids lots of time to read and write in class, but when will I have time to teach grammar and spelling?” Like me, she taught young adolescents, ten to twelve-year-olds. Like me, and every teacher I’ve ever known, she felt tremendous pressure on every minute in her schedule.

Some whole language advocates, back then, said, “Don’t worry; students will just absorb the language skills they need from all that active and pervasive language experience they get in good classrooms.”

That does seem to be partially true–true sometimes and in some ways.

For example, some of the kids I taught had such strong auditory perception, and so much auditory experience, both in school and in well-educated, talkative, mainstream-culture families, that they could just test word order, phrasing and usage against their auditory memories, as they spoke or wrote or took the grammar sections of the standardized tests we administered for practice. For some kids, whatever sounded right was likely to be right.

Other students could remember the spellings of all those words they’d seen, as enthusiastic readers given steady time in which to read in school, and also taking lots of time to read at home, much more than the homework guideline. Some could observe typical spelling patterns on their own, and apply them to new words they’d heard but not seen. If this is a science word, the f sound might be made by ph. Etc.

Regardless of learning styles and preferences, more time to read always did help challenged spellers.

But… Gradually I came to realize that highly motivated, fast and fluent readers might not be really looking at the insides of the words they read. They didn’t necessarily transfer their reading vocabulary into an accurately spelled writing vocabulary.

Similarly, some very expressive speakers weren’t using conventional grammatical patterns in their speech, for a variety of reasons, including being surrounded by the fast and loose speech patterns of popular culture. So they couldn’t rely on what sounded right to tell them what was correct.

Recently I’ve been reading paleoanthropology again, thinking about human evolution, and watching a very young learner as he figures out the connections between language and behavior. All that’s in my mind as I rethink language skills, and consider the idea that nearly all of us are well equipped to analyze patterns in the speech we hear, almost automatically, and then apply them in the speech we utter. We’ve evolved for that, over a very long stretch of time.

But we haven’t been using written language for very long, as a species, and there seems to be huge variation in how well we’re equipped to transfer our speech metacognition to written language.

Individual differences and anthropological observations aside, all the kids I taught were natural, intuitive language scientists, natural linguists of their home language, noticing and formulating and applying patterns, in some of their language experience, but not necessarily in all.

Not as a function of ideology, or adherence to tradition, but as a result of pragmatic observation, I could see that most kids need some explicit teaching to supplement their own language science capabilities. In my experience, though, the best explicit teaching of language skills does exactly that: it supplements, encouraging, empowering and cheering on students’ own capabilities as language scientists–their ability to make systematic sense of the language they use.

So the best language skills teaching will build on kids’ own observations about the spoken and written language of their experience.

Furthermore, speaking to that long-ago question at the workshop: If we’re committed to giving kids plenty of time, every day, for actual reading and writing, then the language skills work has to be quick and efficient.

Finally, everything we now know about learning says that language skills work, conceived of as language scientist training, will “take” best if it’s playful, the way so much real-world science is playful.

How I started using literacy tune-ups

I spent some time one summer mulling over my observations that far, and rereading Ethel Buchanan’s brilliant book Spelling for Whole Language Classrooms, in which she focuses on students’ own theories about spelling, at various stages, and describes helpful ways for teachers to work with kids’ ideas and move them forward.

sample literacy prompt pageI wrote up some organizing ideas, and put a lot of samples into a binder for myself. It was just for me, so I didn’t need to spend much time explaining. Here’s a sample page:

 

I was working off the model of math tune-ups in a favorite math curriculum, MathLand, tragically no longer in print. MathLand tune-ups often used individual write-on-wipe-off white-boards, mostly as a way for the teacher to see responses from the whole class, but sometimes for the class to see each others’ responses and problem-solving methods. I planned to have students use whiteboards for literacy tune-ups, too.

The MathLand tune-ups rotated among a number of skills, for example work with place value, strategies for estimation, and skills for working with time and money. Similarly, I planned to rotate among a number of language skills, including spelling patterns, punctuation, subject and verb agreement, prefixes and suffixes, some basic sentence diagramming, and more.

literacy tune up record sheetPages like this kept on a clipboard, a sheet for each student, helped me keep track of student responses. I didn’t try to write down every student’s response to every lesson, just things that would help me support individual kids or the class as a whole.

As we went along, I learned to make my questions or prompts increasingly open-ended, because that was more fun, and also more productive. Sharing data is really different from getting the one right answer (or not.) The kids’ responses were often hilarious, and I learned to go with that, to let it happen, to let kids have obsessions with fictional characters–or pink cake, or bacon.

One last thought

So often, teaching young adolescents, I felt regret about aspects of the world they were entering, and the history they explored with me. The history of slavery, or the continuing reality of slavery in the world; the consequences of heedless fossil fuel use. I felt sad to have to open up these facts.

Framing language skills work as a feast of variation and nuance, a celebration of our rich and multifaceted, multi-sourced English (American flavor), I felt thrilled to welcome my students into something complex but unquestionably wonderful, a treasure / parade / three-ring circus that’s free.

To think of it that way changed the whole game, for all of us.

 

 

Building Average

I’m here to confess: I’ve spent a good portion of my teaching career guiding students in freaking out the cleaning staff.

Each year, in Level 6 math, we built a model of the Average Student, statistically accurate, earnestly assembled, vaguely lifelike. We set it up in a chair toward the back of the room. Usually the students chose a book to balance on its lap. I myself sometimes entered the room, at the end of a long meeting after school, and did a double take.

Traditionally, we took a group photo of the assembled class, with the dummy. Here, for example, is an unusually small class, from the fall of 2010. (Clockwise from the top, Kelly, Ben, Seth, Anna, Lydia, and Gianna,)

average 2010 better

A few weeks post-portrait, when stray arms or eyebrows began to fall off and litter the classroom floor, we held a funeral, usually with dual caskets–since one cardboard box couldn’t hold it all. We paraded more-or-less solemnly to the dumpster, and gave heartfelt testimonials about everything Average had helped us learn–

–which was a lot. If you ask a typical adult what an average is, chances are you’ll get the series of steps followed to find the mean of a set of numbers: add up all the numbers; then divide by the number of numbers.

That’s not wrong, as directions. But what does an average really mean? What can it tell you about a situation or a set of data? What can it not tell?

MathLand­—a wonderful math curriculum no longer in print—gave Level 6 students a chance to explore the idea of ‟average” from the inside. Many years after we had shifted to another curriculum, I kept starting the year with this unit, because it was perfect from so many points of view.

Setting a goal

You could build an average kitten, or an average bookbag–but it worked really well to build an average math class student. Kids took it all more personally, and paid more attention to interesting questions: Is Average identical to any individual in the group? How does the model represent each person’s data?

MathLand provided a data sheet which included a variety of measurable attributes—such as the girth of the neck, or the length of the upper leg from the hip to the knee. The sheet also asked about attributes that had to be described in other ways—such as the color of eyes or hair.

Some questions were yes or no: Do you wear a watch most days? Some questions had been wisely left out. Average was always just Average, neither he nor she. We weren’t asked to measure around the waist, or chest, just shoulder to shoulder.

Some questions deliberately provoked discussion. How do you measure the length of the neck? From the bottom of the ear? From the hairline? The whole class had to stop and decide, together, or the data would be meaningless.

Gathering and recording data

Before we could begin collecting data, we had to choose an appropriate unit of measurement, and an appropriate degree of precision. I did specify metric units, partly because I wanted students to get some practice with decimal numbers. The kids agreed that the measurements had to be at least as precise as the nearest centimeter. Even that could result in very unrealistic hands, though; so we almost always wound up agreeing it should be to the nearest millimeter, which we recorded as a tenth of a centimeter. (Fertile fields, of course, all of this.)

Boys helped boys measure, and girls helped girls. All the data was kept anonymous—and we said that the study subjects were unreachable for clarification of messy handwriting, so the recorded data had to be both readable and reliable.

Working with data

On the other hand, the occasional inscrutable handwriting also offered a relevant opportunity, once we reached the computation stage: If you can only read the data for 11 of the 12 members of the group, what should you use to divide the total? What would happen to the mean if you divided by 12 instead of 11?

Also, once you got your mean, would it tell you anything about the huge variation in sizes of kids this age? No–only if you added information about the range, which wouldn’t actually get built into our model.

Could a very long-legged class member and a very short-legged class member cancel each other out? Yes, in effect. But in a class with several unusually long-legged people, would the mean probably be affected? Yes, again.

Meanwhile, what about the attributes described by words? For those, we found the mode, the most common answer or value, with interesting results. A math class with only 4 out of 13 blue-eyed students could wind up building a blue-eyed Average, if the rest of the kids were divided evenly among brown, green, and hazel. ‟So my brown eyes have disappeared from our Average representation?” a certain kind of kid would ask, even without being paid or prompted.

Representing data:

Ed's arm blueprint croppedAlthough they were working together, every child measured, and recorded measurements. Every child took part in finding the mean or mode for the attributes of his or her team’s assigned body part. Finally, every child drew a “blueprint.” Here’s Ed Pascoe’s blueprint for the arm and fingers.

Julia's face blueprintEach person on the team assigned to manufacture the head and facial features, for example, started out by making a basic sketch of a face, and then labeled the mouth with the mean width of the mouth, the eyes with the color of the mode for eyes, and so on. Here’s Julia Bertolet’s blueprint for the head.

Then, following the suggestion of the curriculum, but apparently against common practice in most places using MathLand, we actually built our model. We were armed:

  • with blueprints, measuring tapes and invaluable partners, for quality control;
  • with brown grocery bags for skin, crumpled newspaper for insides, Sculpey for ears and nose, and miles of masking tape to hold it all together;
  • with paper fasteners for knee and elbow joints and a meter stick taped to the back of the chair to make this character a vertebrate, able to sit up proudly;
  • with the almost invariable blue jeans and t-shirt that fulfilled those modal mandates;
  • and with endless jokes. “Where did you put our torso now?” Etc.

Being mathematicians

All this took time, it’s true. Gobs of time, all of it worthwhile. As teacher, I could observe difficulties with measuring technique, awkwardness with calculators, challenges maintaining focus even with the physical reminder of the unfinished body part. I could identify unusual ability to ask the salient questions, or to solve construction problems, or unusual gracefulness in helping a partner stay on task. The kids could figure out what to expect from, and give to, each other. I could cheer on strengths, provide the necessary re-teaching or skill-building support, and encourage insight—and kids could do all that for each other—within an atmosphere of fun.

We were having fun. We were also thinking about questions central to so many math applications: questions about reliability of data; questions about precision; and questions about whether a calculated answer fits an intuited estimate, given the range of the data. We were doing what many adult users of mathematics do: using that language to explore the world.

And of course, we were united, and found truly memorable group satisfaction, in making life more interesting for the cleaning staff. Or anyone else who wandered by.

average 2010 goofy