There are many practices from long ago that we need to rethink as teachers. This series looks to bring up those practices and offer alternate ideas that are more relevant in today’s classroom. Today we’re discussing allowing productive struggle.
What is Productive Struggle?
I’m going to tell the simplified story of how I learned to ride a bike. First I had a tricycle when I was young. I learned how to pedal and move it with the handles. I started to grow out of that tricycle and my younger brother could have used it so my parents got me a two-wheel bike with training wheels. Once I got the hang of riding it around with training wheels they made the training wheels uneven so I would tip a little back and forth as I rode. This helped me start to learn balance. One summer both of my cousins who were my age were not using training wheels and I decided that I no longer needed them. My dad took them off and I put on my helmet, determined to master riding a two-wheeler. My dad gave me directions and started running while holding on to the seat of the bike. I begged him not to let go but he did anyway. I moved forward a little and then fell to the ground. My dad came over and calmed me down and told me I needed to do something. I needed to steer or pedal it wouldn’t work if I didn’t do anything. So we tried again. My dad ran and let go of the bike and a steered a little and then fell to the ground. My dad again came over and helped me up. This time he wanted me to pedal. I wasn’t so sure about pedaling. That meant I would keep going and I might even go faster than I wanted to go. We tried again. This time I pedaled and steered and managed to go farther than before when I hit a rut in the ground and fell over. Again and again, my dad patiently helped me up and we tried again. Soon he wasn’t running over to me every time I fell. He was having me bring my bike back to him. Slowly I started to gain more and more independence. Finally, I could steer and pedal and not fall over for long periods of time. I was riding a two-wheeler. My dad allowed me to struggle forward. At no point did he take my bike away from me and do it for me. That wouldn’t have worked out and seems silly to actually think about.
Productive struggle is allowing students time to fail forward just like I had on my bike. Productive struggle is so important and too often as teachers we swoop and save instead of letting students fail forward.
Why Is Swooping A Problem?
Imagine a classroom where kids are learning about place value. A student builds the number 23 with five tens instead of two tens and five ones. The teacher looks at the child and says, “no remember twenty-three two tens and three ones.” The child then fixes their number and now they understand place value… uh… no. Now they got this one problem right but because they were basically told the answer.
A child is reading a book and they get stuck on the word like. The teacher says remember this is a silent e so the i says its name. L-i-k, like. The child mumbles along with the teacher and the teacher says, “good you got it!”
A writer is writing a story with no punctuation and the teacher comes over and adds punctuation with a pen to the child’s’ writing.
The examples can go on and on. So often when children make mistakes teachers fix the mistakes. The problem with doing that is that we are robbing children of learning moments. When I swoop in to solve all the problems a student could encounter how do they become stronger? What did they learn this time that will help them solve the next problem?
What to do Instead
For a long time, the role of the teacher was to help students fix mistakes. I’m not saying this isn’t the role anymore but the role is more of a facilitator of learning. If all of my students don’t understand a certain skill or strategy it isn’t my job to correct them so they no longer have mistakes. It is my job to help them recognize their mistakes and continue to fail forward unit they understand.
Let’s go back to the base-10 example. This happens quite frequently in the grade 1 classroom. This child doesn’t yet see 10s and ones. If they start counting by ones then they continue to count by ones. If they start counting by tens they continue to start counting by tens. They don’t yet see the longs and cubes as worth different values. What if, instead of correcting him I asked him a question that would push his thinking forward. What if I asked, “how much is this worth” holding up a long. He could count the individual squares and determine that it is 10. Then I could ask, “so how many do you have here?” He could count by ones or tens and determine that he had 50. After that I could ask, “now what can you do so that you have only 23?” I could then let him go back and try again. Maybe this time he grabs 5 cubes. Maybe he goes back and gets three tens and two ones. Even if he just groups his tens into a group of three and a group of three he has begun to fail forward or productively struggle. If he continues to productively struggle I allow it. Productive struggle is good and it is so important.
When a struggle becomes frustrating I would come in with some intentional teaching and modeling for the student. Then we could work together to solve a few problems then the student could try on their own. As long as a struggle is productive and the child is getting bit by bit more correct each time they’re wrong I should allow it. I’m allowing students to build understandings and develop a conceptual understanding on their own.
What I've Learned
It is really easy to swoop and save or to remove all obstacles from a child’s path but it just isn’t helpful to them. I work hard to allow productive struggle in all of my students. I still haven’t mastered it yet but I too continue to productively struggle forward as a teacher.
Let me know your thoughts and questions regarding productive struggle in the comments below! I would love to hear from you!
I remember the word wall was one of the most confusing pieces in my classroom my first year teaching. In fact, it was left empty until the 3rd quarter because I had no idea what to do with it but I knew that we were required to have them. I didn’t know what to do or when to put up words or what words to put up! Let’s try to clear these up.
This new series, What’s the Deal? works to demystify some of the most confusing and sometimes contradictory pieces of information in education. I’m not going to say I’ll always piece it together correctly here but I will try.
Should I Have a Word Wall?
Yes. Yes, you should.
A word wall is a designated area in the classroom set aside to help young writers with tricky words. Every grade level in elementary can have a word wall catered to their needs. Even older grades can use a word wall! A word wall is designed to help students make connections between words and provide a scaffold when spelling tricky words. Word walls need to be interactive and created with students not created for them. Students should not walk in to find new words suddenly up on the wall but it should be built together. If a word wall is already put up in a classroom then students are using it as a crutch when it should be a scaffold. A word wall should assist students in spelling words and they should begin to make connections to the words on their own.
How Do They Work?
The teacher adds words with the students to assist in spelling. This is not a place where the teacher puts up all the words kids don’t know so they can just copy them. If you do that kids will either ignore the wall or be overwhelmed by it. Adding words together allows students to have ownership over the wall. It lets them know what words are on the wall and it becomes a tool.
I put up the word and recently. When adding the word and we said it and clapped it and spelled it out loud and traced it on the floor. Some teachers even sing a song. Then we added it. A few days later (actually I think later that day) we made connections using the word and. If you know and then you know sand. If you know and then you know hand! The kids got so excited and found many more examples. Now if a child were to wonder, “how do you spell hand?” They could look to the word wall and see if they could use a word to help them spell.
The word wall should help kids spell the words that are there but it should also help them spell words that aren’t there. If kids aren’t taught how to make connections between different words then they will only be able to spell the words that are already up on the wall.
What Words Do I Add?
High-frequency words should be added to the wall. I put up words that my students are using a lot like Poland, the name of our school, vacation, etc. During word study, we add exemplar words to the wall. We just added the word at and if you know at you know so many other words! I use the 500-word list in the Fountas and Pinnell Word Matters book as a guide but I adapt to meet my students’ needs. It’s all focused on what they need. Last year we added the word a to the word wall, this year we didn’t need to.
To determine which words to add next I generally walk around and read my students writing. I pick some words that are spelled wrong and jot them down. While looking at all the students I create a sort of a tally chart. I determine which ones are within the class’ zone of proximal development and then we add those words.
How Many Words Do I Add?
We should add between 4-5 words a week to the wall. We shouldn’t add any more because then our students will forget what words are on the wall and it just becomes wall decoration instead of a tool for learning. I generally have a running list of words to add next. Now, the point of adding words is so that students spell those words correctly but it is also so that they spell more words correctly. I choose the words I put up intentionally some words like because and about go on my word wall every year. These words are used a lot by my students and they don’t yet have the strategies to spell them. Other words don’t go up every year.
Once words are up on the word wall they might not need to stay up all year. Remember the word wall should meet the needs of your students. The wall should be interactive. Words should be going up and coming down as needed. This means the wall shouldn’t become overwhelming where students can’t find the words they need anymore.
When Do I Add Words?
I add words in a few different times. Sometimes I call my students to the word wall as a mid-workshop interruption during writer’s workshop and we’ll add a word right then and there. Sometimes we will add a word to the wall during share. At times we add a word to the wall during morning meeting. Once we added a word to the word wall during math. I try to plan which word will go up on the word wall and then see where it naturally slides into my day. Adding a word to the word wall shouldn’t take too long, no more than 5 minutes typically.
How Can I Differentiate It?
Word walls are meant to be for all students and I am sure that you also have a wide range of abilities in your classroom. One way to differentiate is to use those pockets that used to be in the back of library books. In the word wall pictured above, I used those for the letter card and more challenging words were placed in the cards. Words that I didn’t expect everyone to spell correctly but I did expect some kids to spell correctly. We added those words to the wall the same way as the other ones. This way anyone could use that card. In the past, I have lined those up on the bottom of the chalkboard for students who need them.
I also create a words we know board when we remove words from the wall but some students still need them. I don’t always call it words we know depending on how my class would react to that with some kids still needing them. I’ve called it a retired word wall before as well. Together we move words like I or the from the regular word wall to the other word wall. Then eventually it might be taken down from that space. It might also stay up all year depending on what the kids need.
What do I need to Start?
The word wall should be in a space where students can see it and reach it. We might not all have this space available in our classrooms. My word wall last year was in such a terrible place because it was the only wall space we had large enough. Do what you can.
Alphabet cards– Currently I use lowercase only on my word wall. I needed a way to display only the lowercase letters and remind them that we use lowercase more than uppercase. I do have uppercase letters displayed in the classroom in many other areas so I felt the word wall was a place I could use only lowercase. In the past, I have used upper and lowercase on the word wall. Do what’s best for your class. What do they need?
Magnet Tape– I use this if my board is on a magnetic surface. Last year I couldn’t use magnet tape. This way students can come and get the words and put them back. They aren’t permanently stuck on the wall.
White cards and a black marker– research has shown that it is best of the words are written in black ink on a white or light surface. We all like colors in the classroom but keep color away from the word wall. You can type your words or write them out. I usually just choose to handwrite them.
Highlighter Tape– Highlighter tape allows you to call attention to a particular part of a word. In the picture above I highlighted to vowels. Right now CVCe words are highlighted on the wall. Highlighter tape will go up and come down depending on what you are drawing their attention to.
Click HERE for a word wall freebie! Included are lowercase letter cards and a few high-frequency word cards to help get you started. Enjoy!
Using a word wall can be such a powerful tool for the writers within our classroom. Let me know what questions you have about creating a word wall in the comments below. Please share any tips or advice about the word wall as well!
What are some other tips for teachers conferring? What questions do you have about conferring? Let me know in the comments below. We can learn so much from each other!
Welcome back to our balanced literacy series! Today the focus is on conferring. All the kids are independently reading and now it is your turn to teach! Let’s dive into how this works!
You might want to read Planning for Teaching During Independent Work Time before reading this post. It breaks down how to decide which teaching move to use during workshop. Conferring is just one option.
Don’t forget to stop by every Tuesday to gain a better insight into using a balanced literacy framework within your classroom!
What is Conferring?
Conferring is one-on-one with just a student and a teacher. The teacher typically follows the research, decide, compliment, teach method. First, the teacher will observe and research the skills the reader has and does not have yet. The teacher will decide what teaching is best for this student next. Then the teacher will compliment the reader to reinforce a skill they have. Next, the teacher will teach a new skill and practice it a few times with the reader before the reader is left on their own. This lasts about 5-7 minutes.
How Do I Start?
Grab a small post it and make a t-chart. On one side write notice and on the other side write teach. Now, choose a student to confer with. Sometimes I observe a bit before I walk over to the student. Do they have a book out, do they have a pencil, what are they doing with most of their time? I jot down any sort of observable behavior I see.
Research is the first phase of conferring. Here the teacher sees the student working independently. The teacher can see what skills, strategies, and behaviors the student knows, almost knows and, doesn’t know yet. At times this last part will be the most obvious. Sometimes we research and just see lots and lots the student doesn’t know. The mini-lessons we’ve taught that they aren’t using or the previous conferring that isn’t being used. When this happens, look closer. You can’t build off of the unknown, only the known. Read more about the Zone of Proximal Development here.
I like to observe a bit before I walk over and sit down next to the student. I also teach my readers and writers to keep working when I sit down next to them. Sometimes I dig in and read previous pages in their story or look at their reading log or post-its. After I’ve gotten a feel for what they’re doing it is time for me to talk to them. Usually, silent observation only takes about a minute. I like to ask what they’re working on as a reader or writer. I’ve found that opening line to bring forth the best conversations. Different teachers use different things. Try out a few lines to find your conferring style and see what works best for you.
Sometimes I ask guiding questions related to our mini-lesson. At times I’ll ask what they’ve tried that didn’t work out recently or what they’ve tried out that was a big success. It all depends on the reader. The questions you want to ask will tell you what the reader can do and what they need help with. That is what you want to determine.
During the research phase (and every phase) jot down some notes. Record keeping is so important in balanced literacy… and all of teaching. I like to keep open notes. This means that I will always share my jots with the students. It can stress students out if they know you’re writing about them and you don’t show them what you’re writing. Imagine if your principal observed you and jotted down lots of things and then never shared them. It would frustrate me so I make sure not to do the same to my students. After sharing notes a few times students don’t continue to ask.
This phase is sort of incorporated into research but it is significant enough to have its own section. Once you know what you can compliment and teach the research phase is over… and so is the decide phase! A lot of times this phase happens quickly at the end of research. You’ll see something the reader/writer is doing to reinforce and you’ll see something you want to teach them.
The teaching point is something that the student is almost doing. They’re right on the edge but they just need some tips to finally do it. This teaching point is something you want the students to be able to complete independently forever and ever (with a bit of reinforcement) for the rest of their reading and writing lives. Keep that in mind as you choose the teaching point. It shouldn’t be something that they don’t know and aren’t even close to doing. That is much too big for conferring. Think what is one step this reader/writer can take toward this large goal today. One step they can take on today by themselves.
Sometimes you can’t decide on a teaching point. Sometimes you sit and observe a reader and jot down a lot but nothing comes to mind. If this happens, compliment and then walk away. Plan later for that reader/writer and then confer with them another day. Don’t waste their time. It happens to all of us.
The compliment serves several purposes during conferring. It helps build a positive relationship between you and your reader/writer. We all like to hear positive things about what we’re doing. It helps readers and writers recognize the good work they’re doing and encourages them to continue that good work. It also butters them up to hear something that they need to work on. Let’s be real, we all like to hear something good before we hear something that we need to work on. Sometimes my compliment will lead to my teach especially if I want to build off of the good things that are happening.
Every teacher has a different way to document their compliments. I usually put a star by it on my conferring sheet. Sometimes I’ll circle it. Some teachers jot it under the teach and just know the first bullet is always the compliment. Everyone does it differently. Find what works for you. Below I jotted down the language I might use. Remember, this language might not feel natural to you- try out a bunch of stuff to figure out what works for you. You want to come off genuinely during the entire conference so using someone else’s words might not work out. You’ll get it with more and more practice.
Now the reader has heard a compliment and they are ready to hear something to work on. Our readers and writers will get the hang of the pattern of a conference so after the compliment they know they’ll get a tip to make them an even better reader or writer. I always use language to explain that all readers and writers are good but we can become even better. Also… a bit of a tangent here but I share my reading and writing life with my class so they can see my strengths and struggles too. Ok back to the teach.
Your teaching point should follow the same sort of format as a mini-lesson teach. It should be quick, focused and explicit.
Teacher: “I want to teach you one thing today that is going to help you as a reader. Readers pay attention to many details while they read a book. One thing they keep track of is the characters in a book. They get to know them just like they are old friends and can predict what they’re going to do before they do anything. To keep track of characters at the beginning of a book or series. You may want to make a post-it for each character, just in the beginning, to help you keep track. Let’s do that here. Who are the main characters?”
Student: “Jack and Annie” *inspired by Magic Tree House*
Teacher: “Ok, let’s list Jack here and Annie here. Let’s list down some things we know about Jack here. What do you know about Jack?”
Student: “I don’t know.” Here a student might say something. If you already know this is going to be the response skip the question.”
Teacher: “Let’s read a bit to help us figure out what we know about Jack. We can pay attention to what the characters say and how they act. That will teach us a bit about who they are.”
This goes on until we have a few things for Jack. Then the teacher could prompt the student to try Annie on their own.
The teacher will want to circle back to this student at the end of the book but before the student reads the next book in the series. Students should know that Jack likes to follow the rules and complete the mission according to the rules every time. Annie is more impulsive. She likes to explore and is more adventurous than Jack. Annie always puts them into some sort of danger at the last moment and Jack is so worried. They always escape just in time. Knowing these things about Jack and Annie will help the reader of any Magic Tree House book.
Knowing how to get to know book characters by paying attention to their actions and their words is a skill that a reader could use in every story they encounter.
Teacher: “I want to teach you one thing that will help you become a better writer. Writers use paragraphs when they write to organize information for their reader. Let’s take a look in this story to see how writers use paragraphs.” Here I would pull out a class read aloud or a familiar story to show paragraphs.
Teacher: “You can see that each paragraph is about one topic. It helps to organize information so that the reader can read it easier. Can you imagine if this whole page was just words without breaks? It would be sort of hard to read. Do you see that each paragraph starts on its own line and the first word is pushed in a little bit, that’s called indented. Now, we won’t rewrite your whole story but let’s figure out where we could make a paragraph.” The teacher and student could reread the story so far and add a mark where each paragraph should begin. Perhaps this student is one sentence into what should be a new paragraph, then you might consider having the writer erase and start a new paragraph. Don’t make them erase lots and lots though, that’s discouraging.
Circle back to this writer before the end of workshop to check in and see if they have paragraphs. You might even want to sit with them and watch them write until it is time for a new paragraph. It all depends on how much support the writer needs taking on this new knowledge. Make sure to compliment them when they do!
Using paragraphs can be a hard thing to master. If we push students into paragraphs before they’re ready they use them infrequently and often incorrectly. Using paragraphs is a huge transferable skill. Often we teach students a number of sentences in a paragraph but writers don’t count sentences. Do you think J.K. Rowling went back through her paragraphs to make sure they were 3-5 sentences in length and somethings seven? No! That isn’t what writers do. Teaching paragraphs through writing conferences when a student is ready will ensure greater success and less formulaic understanding. We want writers to understand what they do and why so they can transfer that knowledge into new contexts.
Now you’ve complimented, taught and you’re ready to leave your reader/writer behind. You might want to leave behind a reminder of the conference. Sometimes I re-create a piece of our anchor chart to leave behind on a post-it. Other times I leave a small note of encouragement. I make sure the reader/writer can continue their work as I leave them with high levels of success.
Now… I used educlips clipart here but I don’t just draw like this on the go. These would most likely (100%) be stick people. Don’t feel like your artifact has to look this beautiful!
The lines here would probably be scribbles. I might want to label the new line and indent if I think the writer might need them. I also refer the writer to a page to check if they aren’t sure. This helps to create independence in the new skill.
Are You Ready to Confer?
This week choose just one or two students in your class to confer with. Grab a post-it, make a t-chart and start. Your conferences won’t always go perfectly- I’ve been conferring for over 8 years and mine still don’t always go according to plan. Just try it and then keep going. I highly recommend starting out with compliment only conferences. These might be the least intimidating. All you have to do is find one thing to reinforce with the student through conferring.
Leave your questions and comments below! I can’t wait to hear how conferring is working out for you!