Notes from the Reading Institute @TCWRP

I am fortunate in that I have, once again, pages and pages of notes from the August Reading Institute  to reflect upon, thanks to Mary Ehrenworth’s intellectually invigorating sessions.  One of the things I look forward to most in Mary’s sessions is the way in which she informs us about the research and thought behind her teaching practices.  I like to know the whys of what I’m teaching, that what I’m doing in my classroom is anchored in a thoughtful analysis of all that encompasses teaching practices.  And, in Mary’s sessions, I can count on exactly that.  Once again, it will take some time to figure out what to do with all my notes…and when, but here are some take aways that I will use to get my reading workshop year off to a better start:

Reading checklists:
The new Writing Units of Study contain student writing checklists across grades and genres so that students can self-assess: can I do this writing move? is there evidence of this writing move in the piece I am working on? what do I need to do next? These writing progressions are evidence of crystal clear expectations – and are powerful tools for both students and teachers.   The new Reading Units of Study will contain checklists for reading as well, but in their current absence, Mary challenged us to work towards establishing these in our schools though faculty and team meetings.  Some issues to consider:

  • how can we chart deepening thinking about character, setting, perspective, theme, etc. across grade levels? What, for instance do we expect of “reading thinking”  from a sixth grader as opposed to an eighth grader? Can this be put in a checklist form so that our kids are aware of expectations?
  • are these consistent within our buildings? Mary made the point, with which I am, alas, all to familiar, that often the biggest divergence in teaching practices occur from classroom to classroom within the same building, not from one school to the next. Unless we develop this sort of consistency, there cannot be systemic growth among our students from year to year.  So, this is an argument I am going to bring back to  my school in the hopes that this is the year we begin the conversations across grade levels.

Building “argument thinking” early in the school year:
This was, really, the most exciting chunk of learning in Mary’s session.  TC has been involved in a think tank along with the folks at ETS about how to improve our kids’ capacity to form and write logically constructed argument/position essays (I must be some super teacher nerd, because I found just the idea of such a think tank just awesome!), and much of what we talked about and practiced came from this new learning.  Mary outlined “talk protocol” to practice the vocabulary and structure of a logical argument.  This is not simply a test-prep time skill building, but a year long, systematic progression of activities and reading and writing tasks to help our students understand how to go about this complex and increasingly important task.
Here’s what an argument protocol looks like (from a hand out Mary shared with us):

We practiced this twice, once with a readaloud of The Giving Tree (overall, is the tree weak or strong?) and once with Oh, Rats! (should rats be eradicated or not – here we were given specific audiences to take a stance for).
In the first instance, we literally put our back against opposing walls based on our stance, and followed the argument protocol  in a physical way: out of our seats, face to face.  What was interesting to me was the way this type of physicality influenced my thinking, and I could see my sixth graders loving the whole exercise…and learning so much from it. A key point we learned about the research: for our kids, engagement in argument writing may be high, but their critical thinking was often low. Hence the need to practice the following:
  • appropriate persuasive language use
  • evaluating information  
  • the need to suspend valuation and listen to both sides
  • how to spin nonfiction evidence 
  • sorting through logical consequences and unintended implications
  • paying attention to rebuttal
  • making analogies

All of this is pretty sophisticated work, the point being that early and continual practice in these habits sets our kids up to be able to formulate logical arguments which they can then translate into well written persuasive pieces.

Beginning the year with an understanding of literary language:
Mary spent quite a bit of time discussing the need for us to develop explicit cuing systems to move and deepen our students’ thinking about the books they read.  We can use a variety of mentor texts to alert our kids to increasing complexities – what we notice about what happens in stories in general, that our kids can be alert to in the books they are reading.  We can also share our vision of increased expectations: “Last year we …… this year we…”, and by doing so share the increasingly sophisticated nuances that occur across our texts in character development, tone, perspective, etc.
Mary led us though  a highly engaging activity in which we watched Cee Lo Green’s “Forget You” and analyzed the tone, perspective and symbolism buried within it – both visually, and then in the lyrics.


This activity led to a charting of literary language:

  • angry, hurt, dismissive ironic, sarcastic
  • reflective, sincere, generous, gracious (etc.)

which would be a wonderful visual tool to construct along with out students to enrich both their written and oral work, an activity that we can begin at the beginning of the school year and carry on through the school year.

So, three big ideas to put into place right away…and a notebook or many more to sort through as the school year unfolds. Thank you Mary Ehrenworth and TC!


4 thoughts on “Notes from the Reading Institute @TCWRP

  1. Great points all the way through, Tara. I think it's great to see that video at the end to use for literary thinking. The students would love it! I like the ideas of progress through the grades in argument. Even our youngest make arguments of things they study when appropriate, so I know it can be done. Again, getting others to share ideas is a challenge. Thank you!

  2. Yes, it is. I'm hoping to practice with my fellow teachers first, but, if there is no general interest, I intend to plunge ahead anyway. I'll let you know how it goes!

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