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Voices from the Middle Moving from Print to Practice, September 2011 (19.1) - Previous Revision

This Issue’s Focus: Quality Teaching

Attention is focused on teachers as researchers and reflective practitioners. Through the eyes of the authors, we see teachers engaged in classroom research and reflective practice in order to better support the growth of their students. These articles and Web-only extension materials enable others to examine their own practice and to work as members of middle school teams to engage in collegial conversations about reflective practice, all serving the goal of improved teaching and learning.

Click on an article title below to go directly to the additional content for that article:

Attention is focused on teachers as researchers and reflective practitioners. Through the eyes of the authors, we see teachers engaged in classroom research and reflective practice in order to better support the growth of their students. These articles and Web-only extension materials enable others to examine their own practice and to work as members of middle school teams to engage in collegial conversations about reflective practice, all serving the goal of improved teaching and learning.


Grading Written Work: An Integral Part of Writing Workshop Practice
Kristen Robbins
(read the article)

General Discussion Topic
In her article, Kristen Robbins discusses a perennial problem for language arts teachers—how do we manage the mountain of grading that can become an everyday part of our profession? Robbins describes her work of focusing on drafts that involve more attention and detail than finished pieces. In her experience, this allows her to see more growth in her student writers.
Let’s build on Robbins’s work and examine ways that we can teach students to spend more time with their drafts and those of their peers, further reducing our paper load. Robbins describes her classroom as a place where her students turn in drafts for feedback, enabling her to collect assessment data, including strengths and weaknesses, and then to tailor whole-class and small-group lessons accordingly.

What if we extended this model and had students do some of the work of reading drafts and collecting information? We know that for middle school students, relevance is a key element in the curriculum, and the more voice and choice we give to students, the more enthusiastic they will be about the learning process.  
Key Points
  • In early teaching and beyond, grading is often not central to lesson planning.
  • Student work is filled with reminders of what inspired teachers to begin with.
  • It is worthwhile to spend more time with student drafts than with final products.
  • Lessons are planned and differentiated according to the data that is collected in the drafts.
  • It is rewarding for both the teacher and student to see growth when differentiated instruction is based on student work.
Common Core Connection
The Common Core Standards address the need for feedback from adults and peers in language arts and across the disciplines. If you are on a middle school team, share your data collection with team members. Writing standards in the Common Core are shared across the language arts and the content areas.

Using This Article with Your Team
Try grouping students of varying ability in small peer-mentor groups. Model for them how to use a rubric to support editing. Then ask students to read each other’s work, compare it to the rubric criteria, and, at the end of a revision session, report back to the teacher the top three areas in the group where a writer needs more instruction.

Train students to look for both mechanical (grammar, spelling, punctuation) and content (craft, structure) concerns. Do lots of modeling to help students learn how to use a rubric as a guide for giving each other feedback. Students can share with peers in the same class, across teams, or even with classes in other schools through wikis or Google docs.

Why Not Try This?

  • Use homogeneous groups for peer mentoring.
  • Explain the rubric, and model its use for analysis and feedback.
  • Have students read each other’s work and use the rubric to decide on potential lesson topics based on needs.
  • Add a comment at the bottom of this page to share with other readers your experiences or tips for supporting peer mentoring in your classroom.


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Fostering Meaningful Middle School Literacy Learning: Investigating Beliefs and Practices
Cynthia H. Brock and Fenice B. Boyd
(read the article)(listen to a podcast with Cynthia Brock)

General Discussion Topic
Brock and Boyd continue the theme of this issue—teachers examining their practice to improve student learning—by comparing and contrasting two different teaching styles. Ms. Lawson, one of two teachers profiled in the article, uses an array of established practices and strategies that incorporate texts from an adopted basal reader; she feels the students’ societal need for Standard English takes precedence over time spent acknowledging and celebrating their own languages and backgrounds. Mrs. Baird, the other teacher profiled, has established a classroom that reflects a balanced literacy approach, using authentic texts and many authentic reading and writing tasks. In one activity described through a classroom vignette, Mrs. Baird asks students to create found poems using words and passages from class novels. You might expand on this idea by trying some Web–based tools such as Wordle or Tagxedo to create word clouds—a variation of found poems.

Brock and Boyd also provide an excellent example of what the Teacher Performance Assessment Consortium calls “Academic Language.” If you are working with a new teacher or you are about to enter the teaching profession and are in a TPAC state, then you should be familiar with the TPAC term “academic language,” which is similar to what Brock and Boyd call “academic registers.” This is when teachers use school talk and discipline-specific language as part of their teaching, in either language arts or across the content areas, so that everyone in the classroom has an understanding of the language of the discipline or concept.

Key Points
Student interest is essential to school engagement and motivation.
  • Creating an environment in which students’ languages, backgrounds, and cultures are acknowledged and celebrated instills pride, acceptance, and confidence in students who may have felt an “otherness” in their school experiences.
  • A balanced literacy approach respects difference and promotes the skills necessary to maximize future opportunities.
  • Using authentic texts and assigning work with an authentic audience enhances engagement, highlights relevance for the students’ lives, and concretizes goals.
  • When a teacher models behavior and strategies (like reading a book during silent reading time or creating a word cloud), that teacher demonstrates that the behavior or strategy has value, establishes consistent terminology and expectations, and clarifies the process to support success.

Common Core Connection
The College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading rely on a foundation of wide reading and writing as exemplified in Mrs. Baird’s classroom. In a side note on the range and content of reading materials, the Common Core website states:

"To become college and career ready, students must grapple with works of exceptional craft and thought whose range extends across genres, cultures, and centuries. Such works offer profound insights into the human condition and serve as models for students’ own thinking and writing."

Using This Article with Your Team
Mrs. Baird, a focus teacher, believes that middle level students crave relevance. Her belief is supported by the fact that relevance of curriculum and experiences is one of the core components of middle school philosophy, according to the National Middle School Association in This We Believe: Keys to Educating Young Adolescents (NMSA, 2010).

To achieve relevance, Mrs. Baird focuses on authentic reading and writing tasks for actual audiences, such as parents on Back-to-School Night. Using this example, wonder with your colleagues about other ways to extend the idea of relevance in language and forms of English. Are there community resources, such as guest speakers from community organizations or area businesses, who can visit your classroom to talk about what kinds of reading and writing tasks they needed to master to be successful?

If you cannot bring someone into your classroom, can you use tools such as Skype to connect your classroom to other people and places in order to expose students to other speakers, dialects, or language use? Can you combine these opportunities across disciplines as your team plans interdisciplinary units?

Mrs. Baird and her colleagues created their own professional development group and read books and articles in common. Why not use this issue of Voices and these topics for a group of your own?

Finally, expand the ideas in this article to other languages and dialects that are represented in your school. Use this article to start a conversation with colleagues about rural/Appalachian speakers or other prominent dialects in your school’s population.

Why Not Try This?

  • Make sure that students are continuously involved in assignments or projects for an authentic audience—others in the school, town, or e-communities.
  • Bring resources from those same potential audiences into the school, through personal appearances, virtual visitors, or local or professional multimedia presentations.
  • Invite colleagues to coordinate interdisciplinary units, making a point to highlight the contributions of those who speak other languages or come from other cultures—especially those who can serve as models for your students.
  • Open your classroom to virtual tools like Wordle or Tagxedo. These often motivate students to both learn and think creatively.
  • Begin a professional book club or discussion group. This issue of Voices is a great place to start.
  • Add a comment at the bottom of this page to share with other readers your favorite children’s books and YA literature that are good models of multiple dialects and speaking patterns, similar to the example of Elijah of Buxton used in the article.


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    The Case for Adaptability as an Aspect of Reading Teacher Effectiveness
    Seth Parsons, Baxter Williams, Sarah Burrowbridge, and Garry Mauk
    (read the article)(listen to a podcast with Seth Parsons)

    General Discussion Topics
    By focusing on the relationship between adaptations made by the teacher and the resulting change in student engagement, these authors suggest that adaptability is an important characteristic of effective reading teachers. However, they also acknowledge that the complexity of the concept “adaptability” makes it difficult to define and even more difficult to teach. They help us get a handle on what adaptability looks like and how it can be effective in our classrooms by taking us inside one classroom where a teacher has incorporated this philosophy, with measurable results. With research that suggests teacher adaptations can enhance student comprehension and engagement, we have good reason to pay attention.

    Key Points
    • Literacy instruction is complex and unpredictable.
    • To be effective in this environment, teachers must be responsive, adapting to meet students’ needs.
    • Two recent studies in middle grades classrooms suggest that teacher adaptations are associated with student comprehension and engagement.
    • High-quality teachers create a positive classroom environment, incorporate opportunities for discussion, provide explicit strategy instruction, integrate literacy and subject matter, allow for extended reading and writing, and give students choices.

    Using This Article with Your Team
    The authors define an adaptation as a time when teachers “modify their instruction in response to student needs.” This is certainly an instance where talking with colleagues and, if possible, observing each other—with feedback and discussion afterwards—can be especially helpful. After all, this approach takes a solid philosophical stance and lots of practice. How do you and your teammates identify student needs?

    Perhaps your department, school, or district would be interested in establishing a group to discuss this approach and to schedule observations and feedback. Below are some suggestions and questions around which you might organize such a group.

    Why Not Try This?

    • Alone or with a group, think about how you define teacher effectiveness. What does that mean to you? What characteristics do you use to describe your effectiveness as a teacher?
    • Compare your definition to those of organizations such as:
    • Think about how these ideas compare to the other standards you have examined; your own practice.
    • Find out if these ideas are part of your school’s teacher evaluation process.
    • With colleagues, try these suggestions for identifying students’ needs:
      • Conduct a learning styles inventory early in the year. Choose one classroom of your team to conduct the inventory and then share the results with all team members.
      • Use entrance or exit slips as formative assessment tools to gauge student learning and identify areas where students may need adaptations.
      • Track student questions. If you have the flexibility in your schedule, ask a teammate to observe your classroom and take notes on students’ questions.
        • Keep track of the adaptations you make each day as part of your daily reflection. Discuss adaptations with your team to learn new ideas from each other and to share information about your students.
        • Add a comment at the bottom of this page to share with other readers the ways in which you have identified student needs and adapted your teaching, or ask questions about challenges you have encountered.


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    The Power of Picturebooks: Resources That Support Language and Learning in Middle Grade Classrooms
    Nancy Roser, Miriam Martinez, and Michelle Fowler-Amato
    (read the article)

    General Discussion Topic
    This article invites us into the classrooms of teachers who illustrate the power of picturebooks to build background knowledge and language for students. Through shared examples, these authors make it clear that by using picturebooks, they can deepen learning at any grade level and across content areas. Picturebooks can enhance learning for all students, not just struggling readers or early childhood classrooms. How have you incorporated picturebooks into your classroom?

    Key Points
    • Although picturebooks have been offered to both older struggling readers and second Language Learners, they haven’t been fully embraced beyond elementary classrooms for their potential to serve teaching and learning.
    • Whether the texts represent the synergy of pictures and words of classic picturebooks, or whether they’re illustrated texts, poems, graphic novels, narrative nonfiction, or information texts, it’s through today’s multiplicity of illustrated texts that students can discover the finest uses of language, as well as encounter images that inform, entertain, fill gaps, and open to wondering.
    • Quality picturebooks lead students of all ages to discover, discern, interpret, infer, posit, support, connect, talk, write, and represent multimodally.
    • These captivating resources are an asset in the classroom, serving students’ language and learning during the middle years and beyond.

    Common Core Connection
    The Common Core Standards have an increased emphasis on informational texts. Picturebooks, trade books, and photo essays can all be used to increase your use of informational texts in the language arts and across content areas.

    Using This Article with Your Team
    How can you, as the language arts teacher, facilitate the use of picturebooks across the content areas? Do what comes naturally . . . share them. Keep them prominently displayed in your classroom; then read from them and refer to them on a regular basis. Bring a few picturebooks to departmental meetings and cross-curricular planning meetings (along with some substantiating research like this article) to introduce others to the advantages for their classrooms. Once others see how picturebooks can open doors to a wide variety of content—from core curricula to tough aspects of our history to sensitive family issues—you might find even more ways of using these wonderful resources.

    Why Not Try This?

    • Once a week in a team meeting, take a few minutes to share one or two picturebooks. As a language arts teacher, assume the role of mentor for your colleagues.
    • Use your public library as a resource for obtaining picturebooks. Many local libraries have a dedicated children’s librarian who will be able to help you gather materials.
    • When planning interdisciplinary units, use picturebooks
      • to introduce the theme or topic of the unit;
      • as common readings in all content areas;
      • as resources to supplement textbooks or other materials;
      • in small groups or learning stations to focus on a particular idea, topic, or theme.
    • Add a comment at the bottom of this page to suggest other picturebooks you have used successfully to help students access new information or unfamiliar situations.
















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    Student Perspectives on Quality Teaching: Words and Images
    Athene Bell, Marriam Ewaida, Megan R. Lynch, and Kristien Zenkov

    (read the article)

    General Discussion Topics
    As you read about teachers engaging in reflective practice on quality teaching through a photo elicitation project (learn even more about this project on their website, we hope you started thinking about your own practice and how you can be more intentional about continuing to redefine and institute your vision for being a quality teacher. And as you read professional publications, meet with administrators and colleagues, and critique your practices, don’t forget to listen to your students; they have a unique and critical perspective on how they learn and what they need. In fact, among the myriad pedagogical and practical considerations you and your students juggle each day, a student’s supportive relationship with you is high on the list . . . and that starts with listening.

    Key Points
    • Students can tell us about aspects of quality teaching that we may not have considered; they may also define quality teaching differently from teachers, administrators, or outside agencies.
    • Visually based writing pedagogies are motivating for middle level English Language Learners and diverse youth and provide information about these young adults’ perceptions of “quality” teaching.
    • Establishing rapport is essential to quality teaching and young adolescent development. 
    • The high dropout rate among diverse US youth might be challenged through effective middle level language arts teaching practices.
    • Effective language arts pedagogies bridge middle and high school settings and enable youth to be successful and persist across these settings.

    Common Core Connection
    This activity connects to the Common Core Standards’ Integration of Knowledge and Ideas Standard 7: Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words. The photo elicitation project provides an excellent example of a way to meet this standard.

    Using This Article with Your Team
    Making a point to talk explicitly with students about their lives, to help them to navigate the culture of school, and to draw specific connections between school and their future can make all the difference in a student’s life. Try introducing this as a point of discussion in your team meetings; it could result in coordinated efforts to make school and, specifically, relationships with teachers a vital part of a student’s support system. For instance, consider using a similar photo elicitation project as part of a service learning or community project. What would your students learn about their community or a particular cause if they studied it in this way? What might you learn about each other?

    Why Not Try This?

    • Put “building relationships” on the team meeting agenda, and check in with each other regularly about strategies for connecting with students.
    • Listen to your students about what is and isn’t working to help them learn.
    • Make assignments personally meaningful, where possible. For instance, instead of simply collecting donations and depositing them at the local animal shelter, send students to the shelter to take pictures they can share, discuss, and write about using the model outlined in this article.
    • Add a comment at the bottom of the page to suggest other strategies, assignments, and projects that build relationships and knowledge simultaneously.












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    Becoming a Good Teacher: Struggles from the Swampland
    Mary Beth Schaefer
    (read the article)(listen to a podcast with Mary Beth Schaefer)

    General Discussion Topic
    Mary Beth Schaefer describes the good teacher as someone who listens, orchestrates, negotiates, and wonders. As shown through classroom transcripts, Mary Beth illustrates these behaviors in the context of her classroom. How can you use her example to support your teaching?

    Key Points
    • There is often a disconnect between what students perceive as their literacy needs and desires and what a teacher perceives to be important and valuable.
    • Good teaching is a process of listening, orchestrating, and negotiating.
    • An epistemological stance can be powerful and radical for students and teachers.

    Common Core Connection
    Using Mary Beth’s example of determining cause-and-effect relationships in a narrative, the Common Core Standards could be addressed in a variety of ways. Grades 6–12 ELA Anchor Standard 9 is: Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take. Here are some ideas for addressing that goal.

    • Have students identify examples of cause-and-effect relationships in a variety of short stories, in a short story and a novel with a similar theme, or in a combination of a short story and a nonfiction essay with related themes or topics.
    • To collaborate within one team or grade level, multiple language arts classes could read different pieces and compare the use of cause and effect by different authors. Information could be shared via dialogue journals, wikis, or even a collaborative display in the hallway. (This standard is repeated in the Grades 6–12 Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects Anchor Standards.)
    • Pair readings in other content areas and language arts. In team meetings, schedule these readings to coincide, helping students to see that cause-and-effect relationships occur in a variety of texts and reinforce transfer of knowledge.

    Using This Article with Your Team
    If you work with a team of teachers in a middle school, take turns videotaping each other during a lesson. Together you can reflect on the instruction as a way to help each other analyze classroom practice. You may also find ways to gain insights that support curriculum and instruction across content areas. For example, you may identify common ideas or practices, just as Mary Beth’s colleagues did when they heard her students’ definition of cause and effect and decided to share it with their students. Using this example, you may also find places in your curriculum where students work across content areas on a common task. In order for this to happen, teachers have to plan collaboratively, which is what we hope you are inspired to do after reading this article.

    Why Not Try This?

    • Take turns videotaping those on your team, then meet to analyze classroom practices as a group.
    • Plan lessons collaboratively, both within your department and cross-curricularly, in order to extend and deepen student knowledge. It may also help refine your own teaching.
    • Add a comment at the bottom of this page to describe ways your team works together to critique and plan. Also suggest lessons or projects that have worked well to revitalize your students or your teaching.

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