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teaching boys to read

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Teaching the "Adult Learner"

Have you ever been in a class or a training session and thought to yourself, “Why doesn’t that woman stop talking?” Last week I thought that, and then realized I was the one talking. I teach in four hour chunks of time. That’s a lot of words… Research has shown that adults don’t learn well in the lecture format of most undergraduate programs. In fact, where I teach we are encouraged to find more interesting alternatives to learning through lecture. I find that even in myself, as I grow older, I learn better when I can engage the information. I want to touch it, walk all the way around it, try it out in different situations. Kind of like buying a pair of shoes. When I was 18, I would buy anything that looked cute. Now I’m much more selective. I think about how they will feel after standing in them for 2 hours, can I run up the stairs in them, will the heel get caught in the sidewalk…

So how can we engage our audiences to learn effectively at whatever level of education we operate?

I’m working with an ethics class this term. It’s a fun adventure into the gray area between right and wrong. The traditional approach to this class is to present a handful of theories of morality and let the students select ones they find most comfortable. Some have criticized this method, because it gives little practical experience in expressing ethics in the workplace.

So I can’t just lecture about this, I have to encourage the students to interact with the ideas and material. Recently, I began looking for some practical experiences for the students. We took on real life cases, allowing them to think seriously about problems such as how to communicate to a boss that you won’t have your department work overtime to correct his continual mistakes. Talk about a sticky situation. How do you navigate that one without getting yourself fired?

We role-played occasionally to get down to the details of what to say. It’s easy to talk ethical situations in a clinical third person way, it’s an entirely different experience to sit down face to face and play it out like it really would happen. After one role-playing session, a student remarked on how hard it actually was to practice this. I could see he was fully engaged in the learning process. (YAY!)

Here is a list of some characteristics of adult learners:

• Adult learners are generally independent and self-directed in learning (they take charge of their own learning experience).

• Adult learners have life experiences to bring into the learning environment. These experiences must be integrated into the current topic being studied.

• Adult learners are most interested in learning about topics that solve problems in their immediate work or personal situations.

• Adults are self-motivated-no rewards needed here.

• Most adult learners are interested in applied learning- things they can apply immediately.

So thinking about these characteristics, what sorts of alternative methods do you use in teaching? Which have been most successful?

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Reading Comprehension: A Shared Responsibility

As English teachers we are accountable for teaching students how to read literature and informational text. However, literacy should be something of a "team sport" that we can all contribute to throughout the education process, not just the English Department. Social Studies, Science, and even Math teachers have the ability to assist in the call to improve literacy. Not only is this integral to preparing students for college and career readiness, but taking a team approach will also help students better comprehend the material as well as help them understand that reading and writing are integral parts of communication and all of life.

The following is a list of “tips”, if you will, that may help the “team approach” outside of English.  For instance, what can Science teachers, Social Studies teachers, and Math teachers do to supplement the teaching of reading? A few strategies include:

  • Create anticipation guides that list key ideas or questions for students to focus on BEFORE reading that will guide them DURING reading.
  • Provide an anticipatory set that provides background knowledge and stimulates interest before reading (science: demonstrations, K-W-L charts, history: guest speaker, thought provoking questions, anticipation guides, math: advance organizers that focus on the major concepts of a piece of text).
  • Provide and scaffold graphic organizers that guide the information students should be looking for WHILE reading.
  • Double journal entries, where students can ask questions, make connections, observe patterns, etc. WHILE they read.
  • Provide students with annotation marks that help them ask questions, identify main ideas and important supporting details, mark confusion, etc. For textbooks that can’t be marked, provide post it notes or bookmarkers where students can physically interact with the text using annotations.
  • Teach and utilize questioning strategies such as:
    • SQ3R: S (survey: skim text for headings and charts), Q (question: turn headings into questions) 3R( read, recite, review: read to answer questions, answer questions and make notes, reread for details and unanswered questions).
    • ReQuest: have partners read a text together, write 2-3 questions to quiz one another (after modeling this as a teacher). Possibly have student one ask questions for first paragraph, student two ask questions after the second paragraph, etc.
    • Create question-answer relationship charts that have students use different levels of questions based upon Bloom’s taxonomy. Square One: in the text question, Square Two: compile information and think question, Square Three: question the author, Square Four: judgment/evaluation question. This will need to be highly modeled and scaffolded before it becomes an individual student activity.

This is a very limited and general list, so please check out my sources for more specific ideas and strategies:

  1. Chapman, Anne. "34: Teaching Strategies Across the Curriculum." Making Sense: Teaching Critical Reading across the Curriculum. New York: College Entrance Examination Board, 1993. Print.
  2. Fisher, Douglas, and Nancy Frey. Improving Adolescent Literacy: Content Area Strategies at Work. Boston: Pearson, 2012. Print.
  3. Lee, C.D., Spratly, A. (2010). Reading in the Disciplines: The Challenges of Adolescent Literacy. New York: NY: Carnegie Corporation of New York.

The best news for increasing adolescent literacy is that Ohio has now adopted the Common Core Standards. These standards will insist on shared responsibility of reading, writing, speaking, and listening amongst all the disciplines.  This will also mean a shift to more informational text, along with a shift in the complexity of the reading for each grade level (making it more complex).  There is now a READING STANDARD for Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subject. Surely, this will produce students who are better prepared for college and future careers.

I’m hoping to hear from Math, Social Studies, and Science teachers on any advice they may have on incorporating their subject into the English curriculum!

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Study Skills -- Ya Mean I Gotta Teach That Too?

I’ve always prided myself on having had good study skills that I had hoped to impart to my children, who are now teenagers in high school.  I have one son who was happy to take me up on some (not all!) of my suggestions and another who probably would’ve plugged his ears with his fingers would it not have been completely disrespectful.  This was frustrating, as I felt it was my parental responsibility to teach these kids how to prepare for higher level coursework. Then, exactly one year ago, life threw quite a curveball at us.  My older son sustained a head injury playing baseball, and had to have emergency surgery, which resulted in us becoming familiar with the term “traumatic brain injury”.  We endured months of both inpatient and outpatient rehabilitation, and are very grateful that today he is doing extremely well, from a physical and cognitive standpoint.  Part of his  rehabilitation program included daily “cognitive therapy”, which was designed to improve memory skills and give him strategies to enhance his ability to retain new information…….otherwise known as STUDY SKILLS!  I can’t tell you how many times I asked his therapist if I could bring in the younger brother for a few sessions, as I really felt this “cognitive therapy” was something that most teens could use.  She assured me that insurance wouldn’t go for it, but I was more than welcome to share some of the things I learned with his brother (smile).

I know through talking with friends who have college-aged kids that many students are not well-prepared for the kind of studying necessary for success with higher level coursework.  So many students have adjustments to make with being away from home, but also get slapped with the reality of life in higher education.  I’ve heard too many stories of kids flopping and floundering with their workloads, calling home in a panic with every exam, and feeling so desperately overwhelmed.  It occurred to me that some kids never learn how to study in an independent manner.  Sure, they’re often given study guides, which usually help focus the study effort…..but rarely will a study guide cover all the material, or tell a student the best way to use it.  Students really need guidance about HOW to study, not just WHAT to study.

I’d like to share some of the ways I’ve heard teachers and therapists help students improve study skills, and invite you to share some of your strategies.  I don’t believe helping students learn how to study is time-consuming, but it does take some forethought and planning.  It might be helpful to have a bank of ideas!  The result is students with better skills for lifelong learning.

  • The open note quiz:  Students are not required to take notes, but are given an “open note” quiz about a week before a chapter exam.  Common sense would tell even the most doubting students that taking good notes on the material is in their best interest.  This strategy also gets them started on reviewing for the exam well in advance.
  • Notecards:   Another “optional” study tool that has been suggested by some teachers….only the pot is sweetened…..students who turn in their notecards on test day get 5 bonus points on the exam.
  • The “tri-fold”:  I’ve seen a teacher require the completion of a “tri-fold” as a homework assignment.  These are great for learning new terms, especially foreign language vocabulary.  It may be used like this: The paper is folded in three columns.  In the first column, the student writes the word in the foreign language, and the English counterpart goes in the second column.  Then the student folds back the first column, and attempts to fill in the third column with the foreign language word.  The paper then gets turned over, and the process is repeated.  Repetition, repetition, repetition!
  • Mnemonic devices (e.g. acronyms, word associations)….Try having students draw a picture that they associate with a concept, or come up with a silly phrase to help them remember a list, sequence, or formula.  Our son was taught to use these often in his cognitive therapy.  I asked him if he still uses the strategies he learned, and he said he absolutely does.  Word associations are great for remembering things.  When memorizing some of the body systems, he remembered that axillary referred to the armpit area by associating it with Axe deodorant.  Hey, whatever it takes!

First 10 elements on the periodic table:  Hydrogen, Helium, Lithium, Beryllium, Boron, Carbon, Nitrogen, Oxygen, Fluorine, Neon

Word association to help you remember them in order:  Hyper Helen Likes Berries Boring Carl Never Opts For Neon

*The key to effective associations is to be sure they are personal to the students.  They should come up with their own, unless you have a great one that is catchy and easy to remember!

  •  Encourage multi-modal study habits….Read it, write it, and say it out loud!  When we use different senses while studying, this helps file the information in a “deeper drawer” of the brain.   This is better for longer retention of the material, and quicker retrieval.
  •  Although most teachers are excellent about giving notice for exams, I do know some who wait until the day or two before the test to give out the study guide.  This is usually the signal that students use to start studying, even though it may not be the intention of the teacher for students to wait for the guide.  It may be best to give out the study guide at least a few days in advance so students get the hint that it’s time to start preparing!  Yes, there will always be procrastinators, and even though you’ve had the exam date written on the board for ten days, some people will wait until they have the study guide in their hot little hands.

With all that teachers have to get done in a very short time, improving the study skills of students may not be high on the priority list for some, but there are some students out there who will truly appreciate it, many who will benefit, and some who will always remember that trick you taught them.  If you have any ideas to add, please do!  I’m still working on our other son (smile).

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That Positive Reinforcement Stuff

I teach in a setting in which the principles of Applied Behavior Analysis are used every day, as naturally as the sun rises in the morning.  As a teacher of children with autism, in a specialized program for students with autism, I’ve come to recognize those same principles are simply the basis for good teaching, not just what we do in our special corner of the educational world.  Sometimes applying those principles doesn’t come so easily to teachers, as it takes understanding and time to put it all into effective practice.  An increasing number of students with special needs are continually being educated in the regular classroom environment causing teachers to be really challenged with meeting the needs of children with a variety of learning styles and issues, and the behavior management piece may be more significant than ever.  In writing this article, my hope is to to share some thoughts, ideas, and support to those who are facing such challenges.

A couple of years ago, I was involved in the transition of a student with autism back into their “home school”, and attended a meeting with the staff who were going to be involved in supporting that child’s education.  As we discussed things that may come up in the classroom, the teacher commented that sometimes “that positive reinforcement stuff doesn’t work”, and wondered what she should do if that was the case with this student.  It became clear to me that she needed a deeper understanding of what “positive reinforcement” means.  Her experiences led her to believe that sticker charts and praise for doing the right thing was all she needed.  When that didn’t work for some students, she believed the principle had failed her.

Many teachers have classroom reward systems in place, or even school-wide positive behavior support programs, but these may not work effectively with all students.  When a student comes from a different background, or has specific learning and/or behavioral issues, these systems may not be individualized enough to help each of those children.  That’s when we need to step back and look at what we’re doing more closely, in order to reach those who may be most in need of extra support.  Improving your own ability to reinforce/reward appropriate learning behaviors may go a long way to maintaining control in the classroom, as well as increasing learning opportunities for your students.

By definition, positive reinforcement occurs when something following a behavior increases the likely hood that the behavior will occur again.  To truly understand positive reinforcement, you need to recognize that what is “reinforcing” to one person may not be to another.  You may have a child who loves having a sticker put up on a chart for the entire world to see, and another who could care less.  For some students, public praise is attention they seek, and is thoroughly appreciated.  For another child, it might be downright embarrassing.    I come from a program where students are motivated to complete tasks and learn by some pretty strange things.  Would you complete your work for the pleasure of hearing a tape recording of somebody sneezing?!? Probably not, but my point is that when we’re thinking about positive reinforcement, we need to take individual differences and preferences into account.  To utilize this tool well, you really need to know your students.  This will be especially helpful if you need to develop or carry out a behavior improvement plan for a particular child, but will also help you motivate your class in general.

Finding out what makes your students tick is not always easy, but there are some things you can do to help you learn what interests them:

  • For younger students, a classroom discussion about favorite things might give you insight.  In Kindergarten, we had a daily morning meeting time with a question of the day, which always helped us learn more about our kids. Older students may be able to fill out an interest survey.
  • Parent questionnaires are helpful, especially when the students have difficulty expressing their interests for one reason or another (e.g. age, disability, personality).
  • Play with a variety of fun phrases/rituals….see which ones really capture the attention of your students.  Although the girls in the class might be totally tickled by hearing, “That’s Bieberiffic!!” the boys in the room might start making wretching noises.  We had a class of 6 year olds who absolutely delighted in the times one of us would end a lesson by saying, “You guys were such great listeners, you deserve to be Superstars!” Then we’d all stand up, count down from 10, and strike our best “Superstar” pose.  Silly?  Absolutely. But it was something that ALL of the students (including 6 students with an autistic spectrum disorder) absolutely loved doing. Most importantly, we saw increased attention and fewer disruptive behaviors during large group lessons.
  • Observation!! Watch how your students individually respond to praise/public attention.  Watch how they interact with others, and the activities they are drawn to doing when they have choice.

Taking the time to learn more about your individual students, and standing back to look at how you are using positive reinforcement to improve student behavior and learning may help you run your classroom more smoothly and effectively at a time when our job is more challenging than ever.  In the near future, I hope to provide you with ideas for using praise more effectively and developing classroom-wide reward systems, as well as adapting classroom and school-wide behavior support systems to those individuals who don’t quite “fit the mold”.  Who knows?  You may end up with a sneeze-lover in your class one of these days!

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What Motivates Boys to Read

If I were to offer a disclaimer prior to reading this article, I’d say that rather than being stereotypical about males, I’d like to think I’m being realistic about their needs and wants as readers. For instance, the disproportionate amount of boys labeled “at-risk” or “lower-track” when it comes to reading is what originally prompted me to tackle this subject. Much research has shown that boys learn to read later than girls and have trouble catching up later in life, and the literacy gap continues to grow with age. Girls tend to outperform boys with overall reading tasks, according to Reading Don’t Fix No Chevys by Micheal W. Smith and Jeffery D. Wilhelm. Yet, I recognize there are other factors at play (besides gender) in the lives of struggling and reluctant readers. On a personal level, I teach reluctant and struggling high school readers and have a disproportionate amount of boys in each class. I also have a son that I hope will grow up with a passion for reading. It has come to my attention that much of what is read in the regular high school curriculum is not always to the advantage of the male student. During my time as a Current Literature & Culture teacher, I have posed the questions:

  1. What do boys want to read?
  2. How do we motivate them to read?

To answer the questions, I have compiled a list of ideas that most of the boys in my classes have either mentioned enjoying, demonstrated enjoying, or demonstrated higher comprehension with:

  • Informational text: When given a text that teaches them something or allows them to accomplish something beyond the reading, boys tend to be more motivated and attempt to concentrate harder on what they are reading. These texts have a point, a purpose, and are something more meaningful to their everyday lives than a poem or short story. Often times how-to articles, information about a subject they are interested in (cars, sports, technology, etc.), or texts that can be easily exportable into conversation (sports scores, jokes, headlines) are a motivation for them to read.
  • Movie scripts: I came across this by chance. I had students look up and read a script of their favorite movie, of which they can visualize and have background knowledge. This would also be helpful for the ELL student. Students in my class enjoyed reading the original script version of their movie, comparing and contrasting it to the movie version, and visualizing what they read as they remembered seeing it in the movie. We used http://www.imsdb.comas our script source.
  • Biographies of people they care about: This lesson began with looking up biographical passages of favorite rappers, singers, movie stars, sports heroes on biography.com and branched to trips to the library to pick up autobiographies, biographies, and memoirs. Some student favorites included:
    • A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah
    • The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore
    • Between a Rock and a Hard Place by Aron Ralston
    • Hole in my Life by Jack Gantos
    • The Snake Charmer: A Life and Death in Pursuit of Knowledge by Jamie James
  • Graphic novels: This helps develop visualization skills while also providing high engagement. The favorites from my students include:
    • The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman
    • Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
    • American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang
    • Stiches by David Small
  • Some fiction: These selections are going to depend on the varying personalities of each student. However, I have compiled a list of fiction that my male students have thoroughly enjoyed and, in parenthesis, why they enjoyed it:
    • Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins(action-packed)
    • Scrawl by Mark Shulman
    • Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
    • The Maze Runner by James Dashner
    • Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs (creepy, therefore, interesting)
    • Lockdown by Walter Dean Myers (realistic)
    • I am Number Four by Pittacus Lore (action-packed)
    • The Future of Us by Jay Asher
    • Maximum Ride by James Patterson
    • The Enemy by Charlie Higson
    • All the Broken Pieces by Ann E. Burg
    • The Inheritance Cycle Series by Christopher Paolini
    • In addition, I would recommend using http://www.ala.org for a list of the top fiction books for reluctant readers of any gender.

The first week of every month, I will continue to grapples with the best practices in teaching comprehension skills and strategies to reluctant readers (which I hope to address in later blog posts), but for now I hope this list is helpful in finding a starting point to motivating male readers to find value and enjoyment in reading.

Please keep in mind these lists are intended for high school students.

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