Friday, November 14, 2014

Guest Blog - Reading Instruction and Reading Response Journals

I am excited to announce Maria Braswell as the first to guest-blog!  I met Maria last summer at a professional learning conference hosted by our district and it was immediately obvious that she was hungry to grow.  Her enthusiasm is contagious and I am not surprised that her students are producing amazing results!

Get to know Maria.

I am a 3rd year teacher. I have taught 2nd, 3rd, and now 4th grade. I have a B.A. in Communication and Information Sciences from the University of Alabama (ROLL TIDE!). I spent 3 years working as an advertising executive at BBDO Atlanta on the AT&T account. During my time in graduate school, I worked as a translator for a large, non-profit organization in Atlanta. I graduated from Mercer University, Atlanta in 2011 with an M.A.T in Early Childhood Education. 

I teach in a high poverty, high transiency school. Our school is Title I. 97% of our student population qualifies for free or reduced lunch. Though our students are predominantly African American (60%), we have a growing Hispanic population (20%). My class has a high volume of students in the early intervention program, and also serves as the ELL classroom for my grade-level. 

Discuss your prior experiences teaching reading.

Last year, I used guided reading in my classroom. It is the model that most of the teachers in my building use, so I felt that it was my best bet in terms of resources and support. My class was an exceptionally diverse group of readers. Coming into the school year, I had students reading anywhere from a Kindergarten to a 3rd grade reading level. Not only were most of my students significantly below grade level, but they also loathed reading. As soon as it was time for reading, I found that half of my class couldn’t stay awake, wanted to chat with a friend, or needed to go to the restroom, nurse, etc. During our guided reading time, I would pull small groups of readers on similar levels. I would typically select the texts for the students. My ESOL teacher pushes in, so she would support her students in small group during the reading block as well. Meanwhile, the rest of my students would read independently or be working on an activity related to the standards that we were mastering. As the year went on, I noticed that my students were not progressing in the way that I had hoped. Guided reading was helping my lower students, but it didn’t seem to extend the students on the higher end of the spectrum. One of my biggest challenges was that I had not fully bought into the idea of guided reading. I am an avid reader. When I pick up a book, I am all in. I am invested in the characters and their circumstance. I will finish a book in one sitting if the stars align. There is so much to love about reading, but I did not feel that guided reading was delivering this message to my students. For me, the leveled readers did not provide an authentic reading experience. I do not want to read those books, so why would my students? To me, it is very difficult to have grand literary conversations about a leveled reader. Last October, something amazing happened in my classroom. I chose Charlotte’s Web as our extended text, class read aloud. Immediately, I saw a change in my students. Though the book was on a high reading level, my students were following along as I read to them, and they were actually interested in the text. They were asking questions, writing about the literature, and having those grand conversations that I so yearned for in my classroom. The entire dynamic of our reading block was drastically different. The read aloud became a staple of my classroom. We ended up reading 6 novels as a class from October to May. By the end of the year, my students would choose extra read aloud time over recess. I realized that moving forward, I needed to tap into the authentic reading experience in order to help my students grow as readers.  

What instructional changes have you implemented when teaching reading this year?

This year, I implemented reading response journals (View Reading Response Journals Blog Post for additional support) in my classroom. The reading response journal is now the anchor of my reading instruction. From the teacher’s perspective, there is a lot to learn when it comes to teaching alongside the reading response journal. The journals force the teacher into the role that they should play in the classroom of facilitator, rather than dictator. The entire literacy block is driven by the literary conversations that are taking place in the journals and spilling into the conferences and strategy groups. It is a departure from many of the “traditional” models that people think of when they think of reading instruction. With an open mind and a passionate heart, I dove right in this year. Since my students have no previous experience with journaling in reading, they needed additional support in order to be successful.  One of the keys for their success has been the strategies journal. My students keep a separate journal which they update with the strategies that they have learned as they progress through the year. This journal works in tandem with the reading response journal. When I teach my students any of the CAFÉ strategies, they record the name of the strategy in their journal. I model the use of the strategy and then the students have the opportunity to practice the use of the strategy with peer partners. Additionally, I create an anchor chart or some type of visual cue that ties in with the strategy. The students copy the visual into their strategies journal so that they always have a reminder of how to use the strategy. (this element is key, especially for my ELL students) During our reading block, I meet with strategy groups. I use a variety of assessments and most importantly the reading response journals to select the topics that I will teach or review during strategy group meetings. One very important component of my reading instruction this year is that all texts are student selected. I invested a great deal of time in the beginning of the year teaching my students about book selection. This conversation has continued throughout the year in our small group and individual conferences.
                Additionally, I have continued with my extended text class read aloud. During this time, we continue to reinforce our CAFÉ strategies. The extended text also serves as a time to introduce my students to the Notice and Note signposts. Since the signposts dig deeper into the text, the read aloud is the perfect time to learn about and utilize these strategies. 

What differences do you see with your readers this year when compared to last year?

Since I looped with my class, I can say with certainty that reading response journals have revolutionized my reading instruction. First and foremost, my students are reading! They look forward to reading time more than any other time in our day. I find that my students feel empowered this year. They are accountable for their learning during reading. They are the ones that choose the books that read. They are the ones who drive the conversation during strategy groups. I also find that my students are more motivated than ever before. They are making significant gains this year. One of my students has already moved 5 reading levels and it’s only November! Because my students can see their own growth, they are encouraged to persevere. They can clearly see how far they have come. When the doubt creeps in or they feel uncertain, all they have to do is flip back to their earlier entries and compare them with the work they are doing now. There really is nothing more powerful. The most important change that I have seen in my readers is that they are becoming thinkers. It is not uncommon for them to stop in the middle of reading and jot down a question on a sticky note about something that they may be wondering about the text. They make predictions. They reflect on what they have read. They have become readers in the truest sense.

What is your plan, in regards to reading instruction, for the future?

Moving forward, I plan to continue using reading response journals in my classroom. I know that as we move through the year, my students will continue to teach me what works and what does not work when it comes to journaling. Towards the end of the year, I plan to have my students reflect on their journaling. I am certain that they will be able to give me more insight into what I can improve upon for next year. Later this year, I’d like to have my students participate in some authentic book clubs.  Last but certainly not least, I plan to have all of my students reading on grade level by the end of year. 7 down, 17 to go! 

Check out some examples of the interactions Maria and her students are sharing through the use of Reading Response Journals.  It is clear Maria is differentiating process through knowing her students' learning profiles.  She has individualized her instruction so that students are working on strategies that are appropriate for them.  As a result, students see the importance of the work they are doing and Maria is creating lifelong readers!  Keep up the great work, Maria!!