Welcome back to school! For many traditional school year teachers in the U.S., this week is either professional development week or your first week back with students. I hope you are all surviving the transition and ready to get back to the critical, valuable, honorable calling of education.
I am starting this school year in a new district, in a new position. I am the Elementary Literacy Coach for Special Education in a district outside of Milwaukee, WI. There are a LOT of transitions for me! This is my first year in a role as a coach. I am so excited to be able to support teachers and help them with the ‘behind the scenes’ work that we all do. I will be helping teachers to better understand and address the literacy needs of their students. This is also a big transition for me to dive into the elementary world, since the vast majority of my teaching experience has been with middle / high school adolescents. I have so much to learn, which means a lot of potential to grow professionally (go growth mindset!).
I’d love to show you the BEFORE pictures of my new office. It’s not a classroom, since students will not use this room. I share this room with 2 other literacy coaches. It is also our book room for the elementary school at which I am housed (I serve all 4 schools in the district, but this is my home base). As such, I know I won’t be spending a TON of time here, but I do want to make it welcoming and inviting. I have a lot of work to do, but I am up for the challenge!
If you have any fun, exciting, new decorating ideas – PLEASE SHARE! I have a blank canvas inviting me. Stay tuned for AFTER pictures soon!
Okay that’s an exaggeration. I know we can’t really stop using AIMSWeb MAZE. For the time being, it is the best option we have, and there are no alternatives. But someone, PLEASE, make an alternative!
Let’s back up and do a quick overview of AIMSWeb MAZE, which you probably use in your school district if you have any kind of reading intervention program. AIMSWeb is a benchmarking and progress monitoring system used widely in schools across the nation. If a student is receiving an intervention, they are likely being monitored once a week with AIMSWeb to make sure they are on track and making gains. If they ARE making progress / gains, then this data is used to prove that the intervention is working. If they are NOT making progress / gains, then this data is used as evidence that the child may need a different (form of the) intervention.
Weekly data points are necessary to make sure everyone is staying on track. Think of it like weighing yourself every week you are on a diet. You don’t want to weigh yourself daily, because you will likely see too much variation. But on a weekly basis, you are more likely to see an accurate trend over time.
To track student progress in reading, AIMSWeb offers two types of progress monitoring tools. R-CBM tracks a student’s progress in reading fluency; the student reads out loud for 60 seconds, and we would record the number of correct words per minute (CWPM) and errors.
MAZE, on the other hand, is a tool used to measure comprehension. Comprehension is a much more complex construct than fluency. The following information is taken from the Pearson AIMSWeb Training workbook:
“Maze is a multiple-choice cloze task that students complete while reading silently. The first sentence of a 150-400 word passage is left intact. Thereafter, every 7th word is replaced with three words inside parenthesis. One of the words is the exact one from the original passage.”
The students in an intervention take one AIMSWeb MAZE probe ever week. They are given 3 minutes to circle as many correct responses as they can.
As the title of this post suggests, I am not a fan of MAZE. As part of my teacher education, I am trained to be skeptical of any assessment tool and analyze it for purpose, benefits, and limitations. When I see that a tool claims to assess comprehension, I am even more critical and skeptical. I know that comprehension is a complex, multifaceted construct that is nearly impossible to assess in multiple choice or scantron format. Comprehension should be a conversation, not an assessment. This isn’t a critique of just AIMSWeb, but of all tools that claim they can assess comprehension in just a few short, simple questions.
Unfortunately, I see only one benefit to MAZE: it is easy to score. The following are the limitations as I see them with the AIMSWeb MAZE assessment.
1. The format is confusing for students and negatively impacts their performance.
Putting the response choices within the sentence (as opposed to a question at the end of the sentence) interrupts the flow of reading. The student has to pause and consider all 3 options right then and there. If they choose the incorrect option, it will negatively impact how they comprehend the rest of the sentence or passage.
Consider the following: “Most mornings he just tapped a (all, bit, more) of food into the bowl…(6.26)” In this example, I’ve had students get confused and circle 2 answers (bit more) and read it that way, because the words occur together in line, and this made sense when the student read it out loud.
Now consider this example: “This is happening (in, to, for) you,” the fish proclaimed. (6.26).” In this excerpt, I personally think there are 2 options that make sense (to and for).
Some common and effective comprehension assessment questions include text-dependent questions, inferencing, close reading questions, questions about the text or author’s purpose. Never in the history of ever has Cloze Reading been considered an effective measure of comprehension. Cloze reading is a sentence-level, low level skill that does not require the reader to build a mental model and comprehend the meaning of the text.
3. Comprehension should never be timed.
MAZE allows 3 minutes. Imagine what our students could prove they know and understand if given a bit more time. Think of how many 504s, IEPs, and student plans you have read that have included ‘extended time’ as an accommodation.
4. MAZE doesn’t align to instruction.
If your intervention is guiding students with adopting and applying reading strategies, as so many good comprehension interventions do, then MAZE won’t give you any usable information to modify your instruction to meet student needs.
5. You don’t need to comprehend the passage to ‘pass’ MAZE
Students don’t actually have to comprehend the passage to answer the questions. If they have an adequate grasp of English syntax and grammar, then they can simply answer the questions by selecting the correct part of speech or most sensible option for that sentence or even phrase.
6. The distractors are not appropriately challenging.
AIMSWeb claims that, of the 3 response options, 1 is the correct answer, 1 is a near distractor (a word of the same ‘type’ or part of speech), and 1 is a far distractor (randomly selected, dissimilar part of speech).
Consider this example from 6.9: (Was, Jim, Day) stopped playing and ran to the (root, door, thus). Do you think ‘Day’ and ‘root’ were appropriately challenging near distractors? And, back to points 1 and 3 above, this tells me little to nothing about my students’ ability to comprehend the text, and gives me little to nothing to go on to adjust my instruction to help them improve their scores.
So in all, you can gather that I am not a very big fan of MAZE. And yet, it is a piece of data. ONE piece. We need to be triangulating student data and making sure to never make high stakes decisions based on solitary data points. Consider classroom evidence, Fountas & Pinnell benchmarking, MAP or STAR scores, and any other data points you can to obtain a whole picture on a student.
I’d love to hear what you think of AIMSWeb MAZE. I understand that many, many teachers and administrators love it. What are your thoughts on this tool – good, bad, or other?
Curious to learn more about dyslexia? I thought I knew what it was (switching b/d, right?) but I had a major education this summer. I created this 16 minute presentation as professional development for my colleagues. Enjoy!
I have this awesome whiteboard stop sign that I place outside of my classroom door. I try to greet my students each day / hour with a funny pun. It’s turned into a truly remarkable experience for everyone this year. My students will let me know if the joke isn’t funny, and this often turns into a teachable moment where I can share with them a finer point of the English language, or a colloquialism.
What’s great about middle school students is that many are finally starting to understand sarcasm and double meanings, along with symbolism and metaphor. I get to watch their brains develop right before me! It’s an incredible honor. When they truly get a joke and laugh, it’s a gift for both of us.
This experience has brought many new students to my door – students who aren’t even ‘mine’ – just to say hi, thanks for the joke, or share a joke that they’d like to see on the board. Many colleagues stop by and let me know that they miss the joke-of-the-day when I am too busy to make it happen. I love this new tradition! Here are my faves so far this school year (I’ll try to add more throughout the year):
Tomorrow, the students will arrive. Not all of them, just the 6th graders. We are trying a new thing this year – slow integration and transition. The rest of my students, 7th and 8th graders, will come on Friday.
I am so excited for this new school year! So much is new. I have a new room, a new position (Reading Specialist), a new student population (6-8th grade, not just one grade level), and a renewed sense of drive and purpose.
I’d love to show off my new room! Flexible seating was a major goal this year. Usually, I have 8 table groups for up to 33 students. But this year, I’ll be working with about 5 students at a time. To honor their different learning preferences, I created different seating options within the classroom for them to choose what works best.
Come on in – I’d love to give you the tour!
Building relationships is THE most important aspect of my teaching practice. I get to know my students, and I let them know that I love and appreciate them. Humor also helps.
Here is one flexible seating option in my room
Here is the second flexible seating option. I anticipate using this one the most with my groups of 4-5.
Here is a remake of my Instagram Reading Bulletin Board. It was such a big hit last year, I had to bring it back in the new room! By the end of the year, it will be filled with pictures of my awesome students being awesome 🙂
Here are our individual computer work stations. Each student has his/her own iPad, but as you can imagine, a desktop is preferable in some instances.
I am very proud of this new bulletin board: Fridge Worthy. Since my students (Tier 3 for Reading Interventions) need a major boost in confidence and a huge dose of love, I decided to incorporate this ‘praise board’ of sorts. They can post ANYthing they are proud of – it doesn’t have to be for reading. I’d like them to come into the room and have a feeling of pride and recognition.
Secondly, I have also posted my learning goals and targets for the year. I’ll have another set from which I will select the target(s) of the day and place them prominently on the front board. There aren’t many in my program, but they are all critical.
Oh, and you might have noticed that I chose a name for my new room: THE READING LAB. Zing. It’s gonna be a great year!
Well, we are down to the last 9 days of school. I know, oh do I know, how tempting it is to fill in those last few weeks with ‘fluff’ and ‘fun stuff.’ But I was having none of that this year. I wanted to end the year strong. I noticed that we had not made time for argumentative writing this year, and I know how critically important that is in 8th grade (and… life), so I developed a 9-week quick tour of the argumentative genre. Believe it or not, I think my students appreciate this. I am not having the mutiny I expected, and everyone seems fairly engaged and productive :: knocks on wood::
I began by presenting a menu of options to each of my 4 classes and allowing them to choose their top 2 or 3 topics. I do have one advanced English class, and I gave them the option of “genetically modified babies,” which I did not offer to my other classes. Here were their options:
Cell phones in school
Physical Education class in school
Junk food in school
Changing the legal driving age
Legally assisted suicide
I had all topics pre-approved by the principal, and I did a few quick searched on my own to determine if there was enough credible and student-friendly material available on the internet for them. As you can see from the picture above, the top picks in each class were legally assisted suicide and cell phones in school.
The first step was teaching my students what evidence is (FEAST-ExO) and how to appropriately perform a google search to get some background information on their topic. I gave each small group a post it and asked them to post 5 indisputable facts about their topic that they found in their research. Then, I had each small group generate sub-questions that they still wondered about their topic, divvy up the questions to group members, and perform further research to add to the posters. This gave us a good foundation of knowledge about the topic before proceeding.
Following the internet research, I had the class generate a list of stakeholders in the topics and then assign each student to a stakeholder position (e.g. doctor, parent). They then created a mini profile on their stakeholder including name, age, occupation, stakes, etc. Their favorite part was drawing their stakeholder’s likeness 🙂
Our next steps were to investigate and practice writing claims, which culminated with them writing a claim for their own stakeholder based on his/her most logical position on the topic. Over the weekend, they gathered evidence their stakeholder would use to construct their argument.
This week, they will be engaging in an online threaded discussion on Google Classroom, posing as their stakeholder and defending their claim with credible and logical evidence. The final activity will be a collaborative one – they will work together to generate a solution or compromise for their topic. They will have to submit a detailed explanation of the compromise, including pros and cons.
Does this seem like a lot for a 13 year old? Not my 7th graders 🙂 They are doing fantastically. For some of my struggling students, I did offer assistance such as printed research for them to highlight and use. In general, though, I’ve been mostly hands-off and allowing them to explore this genre as independently as possible. I’ll be sure to report back once we have finished the unit to let you know how it went!
We have now finished our Online Threaded Discussions, which went very well (done on Google Classroom). Having them do much of the legwork up front, researching and familiarizing themselves with the topic and evidence, was the most useful strategy. They came prepared to discuss! Below are some snapshots of their online discussions.
At the beginning of the semester, I decided that I needed a reading bulletin board to celebrate catching my students reading. I wanted to fill my room with positive images of students filling their hearts and their brains. The initial blank board looked like this:
The hashtag at the top reads #wmsreads. Note: This was never posted on actual social media – this is for my classroom use only.
I added about 2 – 3 photos each week. The students REALLY looked forward to seeing their pictures appear on the wall! I began by catching candids, but after a while, students came up with their own ideas and asked to pose for pictures. By the end, students were taking their own pictures and submitting them to me for approval and printing.
All in all, it was a very fun activity, and it helped spread a positive message about reading being ‘cool’ 😉
Here is the final product. And wouldn’t you know, the very DAY that I finish the board, Instagram went and changed their logo on me? Oh well, I like this one and I will keep it up for a long time!
I have a Teacher Challenge for you. Yes you! When is the last time you used manipulatives in your classroom? If you don’t teach elementary math or science, then you probably rarely use them. But the students LOVE them, and they increase their engagement, communication, and learning! That is why I am challenging you to find a way to use manipulatives in your next unit of learning.
A manipulative is a physical tool for teaching. They are things that we can physically touch, rearrange, alter, and, well… manipulate. Manipulatives can include blocks, money, puzzles, or any tool that you give your student to use to explore a concept or skill.
I love using manipulatives because the students love DOING. They are engaging with learning through listening, speaking, and movement all at once. Students can explore tough concepts and find new ways to express their learning besides traditional reading and writing. This is a great way to differentiate for various student populations as well.
Let me share some examples of how i used manipulatives recently in my 7th grade Language Arts classroom. During a novel unit on The Giver by Lois Lowry, I wanted my students to practice vocabulary words as well as demonstrate their reading comprehension in some non-traditional ways.
Character Ranking Manipulative
This activity is designed to (formatively) assess Reading Comprehension and engage students in a deeper discussion of the novel. I had my students get in partners and cut out tiles with all of the main characters’ names on them. Then, I gave them various tasks for reordering the character tiles based on their knowledge of the character. For example, I had them rank/rearrange based on the following traits:
youngest to oldest
least to most authority
least to most likable
unintelligent to intelligent
ignorant to wise
shy to outgoing
deceptive to honest
happiest to saddest
I wasn’t looking for any one right answer (except for #1!), but rather wanted to encourage my students to discuss, challenge one another, and delve deeper into their understanding of the characters and their roles in the novel. I’m always shocked at the wonderful ideas and interpretations they share with the class. It also provided a great opportunity for teaching various concepts such as authority, wisdom, ignorance, and deception.
We did a fair amount of vocabulary instruction in class, so this activity was simply for reviewing. I created a blank pyramid (you can buy one here in my TpT store if you’d like), and filled it in with the words/definitions we have been studying. Then, in partners, I had my students cut them apart, mix them up, and attempt to recreate the pyramid. We did this for several days, attempting to get faster each day. They started requesting this activity because they enjoyed it so much!
A few tips on using manipulatives:
I keep a bucket of scissors in my classroom for this purpose
You only really need one set per class, but you can also have one set per student so they can take it home and practice on their own
Save all your business envelopes from the spam you get in your mail. They are FREE and great for storing your manipulatives!
And I was only deaf in one of my ears! 2 weeks ago, a nasty sinus and ear infection turned into a ruptured ear drum, which – if you aren’t aware firsthand – is incredibly painful. Teachers, take care of yourself if you are ill, and have so much sympathy for our littles when they complain of ear pain. It is horrendous!
My ruptured eardrum left me deaf in my right ear for 2 weeks. In fact, my hearing isn’t back to 100% yet, but it started slowly improving yesterday. Your first thought might be, as mine would have been a month ago, “Well, at least she could hear out of her one good ear!” This is an uninformed way of thinking and does not completely capture the impossible challenge of carrying on with life with partial deafness. I can’t emphasize this enough – being deaf in 50% of my ears reduced my ability to communicate by 80%.
My students needed constant reminders that I was not functioning at 100%. They quickly forgot and got frustrated when I couldn’t understand or respond to them.
Prior to this experience, I had heard of disabilities such as audio processing disorder, and I never fully understood it. I still may not fully understand it, but I have gained much more respect and understanding for the struggles associated with processing information aurally. Below is a list of everyday experiences that were altered for me during my short-term disability.
I could not judge the direction of sound.
This is huge. People / students would be calling my name, but I couldn’t tell where to look. Students would be talking out of turn, but I didn’t know who to discipline. Sounds were coming from various rooms of my house, but I didn’t know which. This will drive you insane. I felt like a chicken, constantly jerking my head in every direction erratically trying to identify the source of a sound. I can see how this would lead to attention deficit issues.
I could not judge volume
Without two working ears, it is difficult to judge volume. This included my own volume (no more private conversations, and having to repeat yourself if you were too quiet), and the volume of my students (I couldn’t tell when we were getting out of control, so I often lost control of my students.). I had to rely on others to give me constant feedback on volume.
I needed to make eye contact.
To have a simple conversation, it was necessary to look the speaker in the eye. This allowed me to focus on them (while attempting to ignore the surrounding environment) and to try to read their lips. Unfortunately, young students quickly forget your needs, and they often talk to you from feet away without looking at you. And I believe several got frustrated when they thought I was ignoring them when, in reality, I had no idea they were speaking to me.
I could not separate specific sounds from the ambient sounds.
When I would go to pick up my daughter at daycare, and the workers were trying to talk to me about her day, all I could hear was a sea of babies crying. I couldn’t pick out what the daycare worker was saying to me. You can imagine how this went in my classroom. During work time, a student would ask me a question, but all I could hear was a sea of everyone’s conversations. As I told my class, it sounded like the Peanut’s mom, “Waaahmp Waaaaahmp.” Impossible.
I felt completely lonely and isolated.
One-on-one in a quiet room, I could easily have a conversation with one person. However, this is not life. I went to lunch with my coworkers, and I missed key words and therefore could not follow the conversation. It was like playing Madlibs where every 5th word was deleted. I mostly just nodded and smiled, but had no idea. I went to a birthday party and tried to hold a conversation with several people – nope. I don’t want to be that person who is constantly asking, “What? Can you say that again?” I know that is annoying. So I suffered in silence.
FOMO – Fear of Missing Out
Along with feeling isolated and alone, you also quickly realize that you missing out on so many whispers and inside jokes and subtle conversations. Everyone is smiling or laughing, and you’re not sure why. You are on the outside looking in.
I no longer watched TV or listened to the radio.
I know Close Captioning exists, but after a long hard day of teaching, that can be pretty taxing on a brain that isn’t used to it. It wasn’t worth it to me, so I just sat in silence. Pretty sad!
I couldn’t hear my alarm clock or my baby cry at night.
If I accidentally rolled over and buried my good ear in my pillow, I was COMPLETELY deaf. I couldn’t hear the baby monitor or my phone alerts. As you can imagine, this was very problematic!
I felt like I had short-term ADD.
When you spend all of your energy deciphering the words people are saying instead of trying to comprehend them, this is very similar to how our young readers spend all of their energy decoding words on the page instead of trying to comprehend the message. What you get is a fragmented sense of the meaning of things. My brain couldn’t handle the overload, and it felt very fragmented. I found myself focusing on minutia instead of the big picture. It was very frustrating!
I was completely exhausted every night.
It’s worth repeating. Partial deafness, for me, meant a full-on assault to my brain and my ability to function and comprehend. Life was incredibly taxing. I have a new appreciation and understanding for our students who are hard of hearing, deaf, or who struggle with audio processing disorder.
In the future, if I had a student with any of these concerns, I would alter my behaviors in the following ways: always make eye contact, provide written instructions, keep the classroom environment quiet and focused, re-voice student questions and comments, allow them to work in small groups / pairs in a separate quiet environment, provide extra time and frequently check for understanding, provide a quiet place for socializing during lunch or recess if they would like, and generally offer as much patience and compassion as I can muster.
Here I am at the ENT after being told my ear has healed and I should get my hearing back within 2 weeks!
I would love to hear your feedback if you or anyone you know have ever experienced partial or temporary hearing loss.
If you work in the field of education, you have become all-too-familiar with the Lockdown Drill. This is our generation’s version of the Duck and Cover. Within my school, we do lockdown drills several times throughout the year.
During the drill, we turn off the lights, lock the door, and sit silently in a corner out of sight from the windows and doors. We remain this way for at least 15 minutes while an administrator, playing the role of ‘intruder’, walks the hallways jiggling each door and peering into windows to see if s/he can find anyone unprepared. This is how its done in every school across the country.
To prepare for lockdown drills, I always keep my door locked – always on the defensive. I’ve covered the windows by the door with paper. I keep a mental checklist of extra steps I would also take in a real lockdown situation, including having students barricade the door with furniture, shoving smaller students into closets and cabinets, grabbing my cell phone, and distributing classroom objects that could serve as makeshift weapons if our door is breached. Sounds pretty scary and….dark, doesn’t it?
You see, I’m quite serious about lockdown drills. Dead serious. I’ve been through active shooter training with the cooperation of our local police and fire departments. They fired a weapon in the school so we could hear what it would sound like. We practiced triaging and treating students, It was horrific, sobering, and terrifying all at once. I hope I never forget… no wait...never use the critically important information I received in that training.
I recently read this article, and it really hit home. It is written from a teacher’s perspective on the psychological trauma she and her students experience while ‘Rehearsing for Death’ during a particularly memorable lockdown drill with her Pre-K students.It emphasizes something I always tell my middle school students to keep them focused and serious during the drill. I tell them to treat each drill as if it is the real thing. Why? Because it could be, and we may never know. We have both planned and unplanned drills, and they all start the same way. We are simply told to “Go into lockdown.” The word drill is never used.
Preschoolers are hopefully blissfully unaware of the purpose and history behind lockdown drills, but middle schoolers actually know what’s going on in the world and that there is real reason to be frightened. As this mother asks, how do we talk to them about this? How do we mentally prepare them? How do we – can we even – protect them from the psychological trauma of simply living in fear of this very real and possible situation?
Is this upsetting you yet? It upsets me. It upsets my students. It has become our school culture of preparing to die. Imagine how this affects students’ learning and wellbeing. Will it always be this way? Are we ok with that? What will it take to enact a change?