Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Black Out

When was the last time you read something legal?  A house closing is always my favorite example, but a business contract (your professional employment contract?), an insurance policy, a marriage or divorce or custody agreement, a voting ballot...

Try the upcoming Pennies for Pinellas ballot. Have you read this yet? Most of us haven’t read the actual text of it. Check it out.

Shall the levy of the Penny for Pinellas one-cent (1¢) local infrastructure sales surtax be extended for an additional ten (10) years to finance county and municipal projects, including roads, bridges, flood and sewer spill prevention, water quality, trails, parks, environmental preservation, public safety facilities, hurricane sheltering, vehicles, technology, land acquisition for affordable housing, capital projects supporting economic development (pursuant to section 212.055(2)(d)3, Florida Statutes), and other authorized infrastructure projects.

  • FOR the one-cent sales tax
  • AGAINST the one-cent sales tax

Now, read it again, but this time, use metacognition to think about WHAT you do when you’re reading.

Me? I skip over the legal terms that don’t sound useful and pull out key words to help me understand the GIST of the text. When I read, it sounds like this (in my head).

Blah blah Penny for Pinellas one-cent (1¢) local blah blah sales surtax be extended for an additional ten (10) years blah blah blah blah blah, including roads, bridges, flood and sewer spill prevention, water quality, trails, parks, environmental preservation, public safety facilities, hurricane sheltering, vehicles, technology, blah blah for affordable housing,blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah bla, and other authorized infrastructure projects.

So, when I read and cut through some of the terms that don’t stand out at me, I’m left with the more important words. It helps me read better

It’s one of the strategies that good readers use -- often without realizing that they’re using it.

Do you ever ask your kids to highlight text (or notes or whatever) -- and then they highlight EVERYTHING? Do you ever look at the paper and see a giant neon-colored paper?

Yup. Me, too, even though you and I try to model how to highlight and give clear directions.

Maybe it would help to try the idea of highlighting strategy -- but BACKWARDS.

This strategy is called “Black Out” and it’s the opposite of highlighting.

The short explanation is -- it’s where you black-out everything that you DON’T need to have to understand the document.

The long explanation is that when kids need to watch it modelled and practice it judiciously with gradual release (please don’t just tell them to “do it” and then get annoyed when they do it poorly). When they learn it slowly, with plenty of practice, then can learn to figure out which words are important and which are not. It looks like this:

Shall the levy of the Penny for Pinellas one-cent (1¢) local infrastructure sales surtax be extended for an additional ten (10) years to finance county and municipal projects, including roads, bridges, flood and sewer spill prevention, water quality, trails, parks, environmental preservation, public safety facilities, hurricane sheltering, vehicles, technology, land acquisition for affordable housing, capital projects supporting economic development (pursuant to section 212.055(2)(d)3, Florida Statutes), and other authorized infrastructure projects.

Is that a more manageable chunk of text? For many students, it is. (PS -- if you want to do it digitally, you can just use the highlighter but choose black or dark grey as the color)

Sometimes when we use historical documents, bills, laws, and other types of complex text, it may help the students to try to do the opposite of highlighting -- the “Black Out”.

Here are a few tips...
  1. Model it. They don’t know what you mean if you don’t show them.
  2. Don’t use sharpies on the first try. :) They’re still learning how, so it’s okay to use write-and-wipes or draw a line through the word(s) they are crossing out. Try projecting it and the kids Blacking Out the words on your board a few times (so it’s not permanent and you won’t have to run another set of copies).
  3. Let them practice with a partner. It makes them really discuss what words are important and what are less useful for a particular piece of text. That’s important thinking and talking!
  4. Start small. Don’t give them the whole Declaration of Independence. Give them a paragraph or a few small paragraphs.
  5. Don’t count points off if they don’t do it perfectly. What is important to you may not be important to them -- and sometimes that’s okay. Plus, they’re learning. Part of learning is messing up. Learning, itself, is messy.

, What do you think about the Black Out Strategy? Will you try it? If so, please let me know how it works!! I love to hear from you!


Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Vocab Strategies That Don't Suck

I don’t know about you, but I’m not entirely certain that my hand and my brain are connected. I can totally copy something and not engage my brain at all.

It’s possible that something is wrong with my brain (no comments, y’all!) but it’s also possible that some (many?) kids don’t engage their brains when they copy things either.

Let me tell you the reasons why I STOPPED having kids copy definitions for vocabulary terms.

Seven Reasons to NOT Have Kids Copy Definitions.  (#5 will surprise you!)
  1. It takes forever. Who’s got extra class time to take on that?
  2. The kids don’t always understand the written definition, so they can’t fully “get” the term.
  3. Kids hate to write.  It makes them grumpy, which makes them less receptive to learning.
  4. Kids don’t have to mentally interact with the definitions. So they often don’t.
  5. Copying definitions don’t allow kids to construct their own meanings. And a meaning a kid constructs herself is a meaning that lasts.
  6. Even if a kid memorizes the written definition (and many don’t), they get a 2-dimensional definition, not a dynamic, elastic, adaptable definition that they can use in different situations and contexts.
  7. We live in 2017. We have copy machines (copy limits absolutely acknowledged)! But we can just GIVE the kids the definitions. They don’t NEED to copy them by hand like a European monk before the printing press.

“Okay, okay, Tracy, I get it.”you say to me in my imaginary conversation, “But I don’t know what ELSE to do! Copying vocab helps me get the vocab in the kids’ hands and get around my copy limits and keeps the kids quiet”

True, true, all of it.

But we can do better. Here goes....

Four Strategies for Making Vocabulary “Stick” in the Kids Brains (And Suck Less)

Students should already have journals and the definitions of the vocabulary words should already have been made available to them. This is simply using quick-write entries that incorporate vocabulary words. In most cases only one word would be used for each entry, unless the words are connected in some way. Students simply respond to a question using the vocabulary word. Here is an example:

For the word irritating: "List three things that you consider irritating. Why do these things irritate you?"

This should be done when first giving out vocabulary words. Vocabulary list should be limited to about 5 words or less as students tend to lose interest after that.

First, explain the "formal" definition of a word, then give several examples of the word in context. After that, provide a question (like the questions for the Vocab Quick Writes) and have the students discuss this in class together, using the word in their discussion. Have them share the highlights of their discussion with the class. This strategy might take more time, but the students thoroughly understand the words afterwards. And it takes less time than copying definitions.

It is incredibly simple to use in the classroom but it can have a huge impact on your kids.

Basically this strategy asks students to organize words or phrases into piles that make sense to them. The strategy is useful as both a pre-and-post reading strategy. During pre-reading, kids use their prior knowledge to organize words and establish a purpose for reading. As an after-reading strategy, students reflect on what they read and process the ideas presented in the text.

There are two types of sorts:
  1. Closed word sorts are when the teacher defines the process for  categorizing the words. This requires students to think critically as they look for specific concepts, word structures and definitions. Meaning, the teacher gives the students the categories (examples of categories could include: people, places, things OR 15th, 16th, 17th century OR England, France, Italy)
  2. In an open word sort, students determine for themselves how to categorize the words. Because of this, open sorts can prompt divergent and inductive reasoning. Meaning, they have to come up with their own categories. a)      Select 15-20 words that are important to the understanding of the lesson. At this time, the teacher should determine if it will be an open or closed sort.
Copy words onto index cards or print them on slips of paper. Provide enough words for each group of 3-5 students. Pass out words to groups. Based on if this is a pre-reading strategy or after-reading strategy, the teacher should decide how much support to provide.

If the activity is a closed sort, remind students they will need to use the categories provided to them. If it is an open sort, suggest to students that they categorize the words into groups that make sense to them. Remind them that they will need to be able to explain their rationale for the groups they created.

Give students approximately 10 minutes to create their sorts.

As students read the text or discuss it in more detail, allow them to reclassify their words.

Have students to reflect on their sorts and how it increased their understanding before and/or after the reading of the text. Did they make changes? Why or why not?

With a Semantic Feature Analysis chart or grid, one can examine related concepts but make distinctions between them according to particular criteria across which the concepts can be compared.

A set of concepts is listed down the left side (or across the top; it doesn't much matter which) and criteria or features are listed across the top (or down the side). If the concept is associated with the feature or characteristic, the student records a Y or a + (plus-sign) in the grid where that column and row intersect; if the feature is not associated with the concept, an N or - (minus-sign) is placed in the corresponding square on the grid. For instance, consider types of government: democracy, dictatorship, monarchy, oligarchy, theocracy, and republic. What might be the characteristics of governments that might be associated with various types?

Which of these strategies do you already use? Which ones could you try this week? Can you give up the precious silence of copying vocab for engaged chatter? What if it helps them learn the terms better? As always, I love to hear from you! Email me at
War Time President
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Wednesday, October 4, 2017

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

I have a love-hate relationship with Cloze Notes, otherwise known as fill-in-the-blank notes.

Do you use Cloze notes?

HOW do you use them?

Like any teaching tool, Cloze Notes can be used to varying degrees of success. I tend to think of them “Clint Eastwood -style” as “The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly”.

Cloze Notes can be GOOD because they can help kids who are reading way behind grade level to keep up with the rest of the class. They can help make sure all students are on the same page. They make sure all students have complete notes, since it is easy for any student to keep up with his or her peers.

Cloze Notes can be BAD because they don’t require a student to actually comprehend anything they are reading or hearing. I could complete Cloze notes in Swedish or Swahili or Samoan because I don’t have to have any clue what they’re about.  Put the original piece of text in front of me, and I can complete an entire page of Cloze Notes in Arabic (which I don’t speak or read at all) and not know anything about what I just wrote.

Cloze Notes can be UGLY when we give them to entire classes just because a tiny number of students are five or more grade levels behind in their reading level. When we teach to the lowest common denominator, we lessen the comprehension of our at-grade level and our above-grade level students. When we give Cloze Notes to a whole class, we don’t give our students an opportunity to try the reading and the comprehending on their own. We assume that they can’t and we take that learning opportunity away from them.

So, are Cloze Notes really that awful?

Well, I think nine times out of ten, they dumb a task down, lower than most of our kids need. And even if they DO need it, it doesn’t allow the kids a chance to stretch upward -- if we do them past the first quarter of the year.

Cloze notes keep a child reading exactly where they are. It does not help them learn to read any better because the KIDS don’t have to do the actual thinking.

Think about it. How could it? The kids don’t have to figure things out for themselves. They don’t have to read. They only have to identify what the next word looks like and copy it down.

Cloze notes don’t teach meaning. Copying doesn’t equal learning.

So, what can we do with Cloze Notes so they DO help our students?

  • First, we can think like the best parts  of Cloze Notes. When we do read-alouds, we can teach our students to choral-read the next word aloud when we give them a pause or a cue.
  • We can make lesson differentiation decisions where Cloze notes are only used for students who are five or more grade levels behind.
  • We can have students create cloze-notes where THEY make strategic blanks and explain WHY they chose those blanks -- and what term goes in them.
  • We can use Cloze Notes for their original purpose -- to gauge fluency in reading. The Original Cloze Notes were where the teacher omitted every 7th or 10th word to see if readers were following along.
  • We can teach note-taking strategies that help students create their own meaning -- even struggling readers and writers. Try Cornell Notes or Outlining.

What’s your take on Cloze Notes? When is the appropriate time to use them? Have you experimented to see if there are strategies that better increase comprehension for your struggling readers? As always, I love to hear from you! Email me at