Layer 1: Portfolios and Formative Assessment

The discussion of assessment is a tricky, but important one to have.  It’s an issue that cannot be avoided–students must earn grades based on their performance in your class.  We live in difficult times, as the Vacca, Vacca, and Mraz text discusses, because of the increased emphasis on standardized testing scores.  While we want our students to do as well as possible on these tests, we risk losing sight of our students’ best interests.  If the emphasis switches from being on what students learn to how students learn, as the Reis
 text suggests, then I think we’ll witness an indirect positive effect on test scores.  Methods of assessment that I’ve thought a lot about using to accomplish these goals in my classroom are portfolios and formative assessments in various forms.

I see many advantages to the portfolio method of assessment that directly benefit the student.  As the Gillespie article put it, “the major advantage of portfolio assessment is that it allows students to actively participate with teachers in the assessment process.”  This, I think, helps students both develop a sense of ownership of their own work while nurturing metacognition in the classroom.  Another advantage to using portfolios is an increased emphasis on the writing process.  If teachers are involved in taking a piece of writing through the process, then students have more opportunity to learn and improve their writing.  This becomes, in a sense, formative assessment, which is the form of assessment that most directly benefits the student.  An additional advantage, if desired, is the opportunity to have students publish their work.  In today’s digital world, you can use a blog or a Google site to host the portfolio, which gives students the opportunity to have people outside of the classroom read their work.

Because I’ll be an English teacher and my class will have a lot of writing, having students keep a portfolio of their work is fitting.  Like I mentioned before, I think a great way to do this while also teaching digital literacy is through portfolio blogs.  Much like we do in this class, students will publish the work they choose to include in their portfolio to a blog.  Reflective assessment will also be a regular part of my class.  Strategies like exit slips and “The Week in Review” that the Bond, Evans, and Ellis piece suggest foster metacognition and fit perfectly into a portfolio method of assessment.  Students will also be asked to reflect on their writing through its various stages, and this too will be a part of their portfolio.  This will help students take ownership of their work while helping me grade it.  RCA2011.


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WebQuest Prelim

For my webquest, I’ll continue to investigate the genre of literary journalism and the many forms it can take.  The question for students will be “How can you creatively tell a true story?”  Students will investigate forms of storytelling–visual, text-based, multimedia, etc.  The purpose of the webquest will be to expose students to multiple forms of expression throughout the genre.  I’ll keep you updated on my progress!  RCA2011

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Layer 2: Writing and Studying

The readings provided a diverse group of examples of how writing can be better used in the content area classroom.  I was interested in the way the textbook put it in chapter 9: not only can you learn to write, but you can also write to learn.  In my classroom, I hope that both of those two things happen.

Something I’ve always known that I want to do is have my students write in academic journals during the class period.  I think that writing without necessarily taking the piece through the writing process can be a great way to digest thinking while getting practice with writing.  I hadn’t thought much about the many different ways I could use those journals, though.  I particularly liked idea of also using them as response journals while they read, which would help with comprehension as well as serve as notes to spur on classroom discussion.  The key is, as the text points out, not to tear apart their journals for mechanics or spelling errors; the journals will be purely a process thoughts and play with words.

I also plan to explicitly teach many of the study skills outlined in chapter 10.  I think the key to functional literacy in today’s society is metacognition, so explicit instruction about these skills is crucial.  For example, talking about text structure and clues to help us figure it out can teach students to map their own thinking.  If we can come up with lists of words that signify transitions to a different structural component, students can more easily think of the text as a whole.

Another way to use writing to enhance learning is to have students write autobiographically, as the Spires article suggests.  “By creating classroom conditions that teach students to acknowledge what they already know and hold it sacred as they learn to negotiate new academic environments, we affirm that our students’ lives, their knowledge, and their language are legitimate and valued” (Spires 297).  When students feel like they have something valuable to say, they are more likely to say something.  Writing autobiographically promotes students’ sense of self-efficacy, which is linked to motivation.  There are many times when I plan to ask students to write autobiographically.  Activities like the “Where I’m From” poem, bookcasts, and journal responses allow students to interact with language to express their own selves.  I plan on using these activities, among others, to foster literacy in my classroom.

Just like reading should be scaffolded, as we’ve discussed in previous CCIs, so should writing.  Wray and Lewis point out the  value of having students write various forms of nonfiction in the classroom to support learning, but they suggest an apprenticeship-style teacher-student relationship along with writing frames to help.  Writing frames are skeleton outlines designed to help students structure their nonfiction writing.  The authors write, “not only do writing frames help students become familiar with unfamiliar genres, but they also help students overcome many of the other problems often associated with nonfiction writing” (Wray & Lewis).  If we are to use writing in the classroom to enhance learning and comprehension, as we should, we need to scaffold that writing just as we do reading.  RCA2011.


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Layer 1: Vocabulary

As a kid, I loved reading The Boxcar Children books.  I read more than a hundred of them, captivated by the siblings’ independent adventures.  One book was about the kids’ exploration of an island that they thought held buried treasure.  I read the entire book, mis-reading island as is-land.  (I didn’t know the s was silent!)  I was too prideful to ask my parents what is-land meant, so though I read the entire book, I understood very little of it because I didn’t know the central vocabulary word of the text.  A couple of months later, island was a vocabulary word in my class at school, and the book’s meaning struck me like a pile of bricks.  I felt so stupid, and I reread the book, this time able to enjoy a much more complete understanding of the story.  As our textbook suggests, understanding the vocabulary in a text is inextricably related to comprehension.  If students don’t understand the words, which are the building blocks for texts, then they will not be able to gain a complete understanding of the text.

English teachers have had a challenging role in regards to vocabulary in the past.  While content area classroom teachers have been responsible only for their students’ understanding of the technical terms associated with their content area, English teachers have been responsible for the rest of the words their students should know.  Since there are a limited amount of English-class-specific words, the only real way to teach the huge, daunting category of ‘the rest of the words in the English language’ is to teach them in context.  When I think back to the development of my own vocabulary, (which, by the way, never stops developing,) most of it came through reading.  Elementary school teachers would have weekly vocabulary words, and though I would be able to match the words to the definitions for quizzes through trite mnemonic devices, I never actually learned the words.  Perhaps I achieved a level 1 understanding of some of the words, but I never got up into the higher levels of understanding through this method of teaching vocabulary.  It was in middle and high school, when the vocabulary quizzes stopped and contextual understanding of words was encouraged, that I began learning a lot more words.  My middle school English teachers instructed me to stop if there was a word I didn’t understand in something I was reading, and either look it up or ask my parents what it meant.  This was a novel thought to me, as the example of my mis-reading the word is-land shows.

Given my own experience, I will certainly teach vocabulary in context.  I strongly believe that this is the only way that students can possibly reach higher levels of understanding of words, like understanding their subtle connotations.  The way I’ve thought about approaching vocabulary is to discuss the words central to their understanding before reading.  These words would be the “Critical ‘Before’ Words, or words that students must understand before they can begin to read a text and construct meaning from a text or passage” (Vacca, Vacca, Mraz 239).  I particularly liked the strategy in the textbook of having students do a free-write about the word or concept, and feel that it would be a great way to deepen understanding of words.  Then, as students read, I would have them note words that they don’t understand.  They would have to pick out a couple words from a reading assignment and form a definition from the context of the text along with other resources.  I would explicitly teach the vocabulary-building strategies detailed in the textbook, like using typographic clues and syntactic or semantic clues, so that they could reach a primary definition of words they don’t understand on their own.  I would also explicitly teach them appropriate dictionary-use skills so they know how to use the tool to its capacity.  They would then teach the word to their classmates, and we would discuss the word in further depth by using some of the other strategies in the textbook, like graphic organizers or word sorts.  I think these strategies are great, but only when they are using words that are discovered and read in context.  Teachers can help their students develop a rich vocabulary through reading and discussing words in their textual context. RCA2011



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Scaffolded Reading Experience

I. Introduction

I am a pre-service teacher, so detailing the class in which I plan to implement this SRE is a bit difficult.  Because I’ve never had my own secondary English class, I’ll use my own educational setting as my hypothetical class.  The middle school I went to is in Mt. Lebanon, PA, which is a suburb of Pittsburgh.  The political makeup of the township is mostly Democrat, and the racial makeup is primarily White.  Pittsburgh, because of its history as an industrial steel-producing city, is made up of a lot of descendents of Irish and Eastern-European immigrants.   Mt. Lebanon is a fairly affluent suburb that directly borders the city, making it more urban than its surrounding counterparts.  The average resident is well-educated, so most of my students have parents that value and are invested in their child’s education.  I teach 8th grade language arts.  The class, which has about 25 students, is 50 minutes long.  My classroom is arranged in a modified horseshoe to promote discussion.

My hypothetical class would be made up of approximately equal amounts to boys and girls, mostly White, and of middle to high SES.  The class would be made up of students with mixed reading levels because Mt. Lebanon does not start tracking until high school.  Also, most of the special education students are mainstreamed as much as possible, so though most of my students would be reading at grade level, several would not be.  There would probably be at least one ESL student, but most of Mt. Lebanon’s ESL students are of Chinese or Japanese origin.

I plan to teach with the book, Strength in What Remains, by Tracy Kidder.  It is the true story of a young man who flees Burundi in 1994 during the conflict between the Hutus and Tutsis.  My students have studied this conflict in their history classes, so it will draw on their background knowledge.  The main character escapes to America, and though he starts out living on the streets of New York, eventually becomes a doctor.  The story is told in a very journalistic manner, and may be my students’ first exposure to writing of this kind.  They do, however, have a background knowledge of the conflict in Rwanda and its surrounding areas.  In eighth grade history, they discuss it and watch the movie, Hotel Rwanda.

Qualitatively, this text is slightly above grade level, with the Flesch Reading Ease Readability Formula yielding a 72.35 and the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level Readability Formula a 9.16.  These formulas suggest that the text is approximately at the 9th grade reading level, but because of the generally high reading level of most of my students, I have confidence in teaching with this book.  Also, the journalistic style, which this book is written in, generally uses longer, but not very complicated sentences, so that may have scewed the results slightly.  I have no real doubts about using this text in an eighth grade classroom with the appropriate amount of scaffolding.

I chose this book for several reasons.  Firstly, as a future English teacher, I think there is a marked lack of nonfiction reading in the ELA classroom.  The nonfiction that is present is usually only reference materials for research projects, and I would like to make sure that nonfiction has more of a substantial presence in my classroom.  Along with my own personal love of nonfiction, this belief has been influenced by the book Beyond the Pale by Marc Aronson.  He argues that the novels we ask teens to read often fail to fulfill their need to influence their own worlds, and that many forms of nonfiction have the power to do that.  I also want to make sure that my classroom is full of “trade books” instead of “textbooks,” as Vacca, Vacca, Mraz suggest.  This particular book allows students to explore, through nonfiction narrative, the moving story of a refugee from one of history’s most brutal genocides and his success in the United States, in spite of the odds.

I will approach this unit from the theoretical principle of social constructivism.  We will learn with this book together, constructing meaning in a social context.  I will do my best to scaffold this reading experience in a way that draws from students’ prior knowledge of either the story or the writing style, and I will do my best to be a teacher who understands that “reading should not be an effort to suppress the personal and idiosyncratic in a search for a purified reading, uncontaminated by the reader’s individuality” (Probst 379).  Students, through discussion, will have an opportunity to engage in reader response strategies, which will encourage the flow of ideas by building students’ self-efficacy.

II. Lesson Plan
A. Instructional Objectives:

After instruction, students should be able to demonstrate an understanding of the book, Strength in What Remains.


After instruction, students should be able to produce a reader response multimedia project based on the text—a bookcast.
B. Materials/Equipment:

25 copies of Strength in What Remains—I will provide copies—during reading, post-reading

Computer access for each student—available in school computer lab—pre-reading and post-reading

Powerpoint projector—available in each classroom—pre-reading, post-reading

Chalkboard—available in each classroom-pre-reading, during reading

Handout—I will provide copies, pre-reading

C. Three Phases:

1. Prereading: We’ll start the lesson with a jigsaw activity in the computer lab.  Students will divide into 6 groups of 4, and they will each watch one of the digital stories on the website,  Then, after 20 minutes of discussion, we will mix up the groups and students will spend the second half of the class telling the stories from their original group to their new group members.  This activity will serve as an introduction to literary nonfiction, while asking students to use their own storytelling skills when teaching their second groups.

I know that my students already have a background knowledge of the struggle between Hutus and Tutsis, so my last step before diving into the text is to tap into that knowledge.  I’ll start the second class period of the unit by asking the question what they know about it, and we’ll list what we come up with on the board.  I’ll fill in the missing details with a mini-lesson.  Then I’ll pass out the books, and I’ll start reading the book aloud until the end of the period.

There are also a few vocabulary words that should be taught before reading the text, most of them relating to African concepts, such as gusimburo.  Before reading, I’ll list a few of them on the board and teach them explicitly.  I’ll also do a review of how to use context clues to derive a word’s meaning.  Then, while students are reading, they will look for the words that we discussed and note their contextual clues.

2. Reading:   During the reading, which will take 2 weeks to complete, I will assign chunks of the text for the students to read each night.  I will give them limited time in class to read silently.  I will use the “Your own questions” strategy detailed in the Vacca, Vacca, and Mraz text.  Each night, they will come up with at least 2 questions they have about the text—something they didn’t understand, something they want to discuss, or a question about how the book will progress.  They’ll submit their questions at the beginning of class, and I’ll go through and select a few to guide our discussions.

Also, we will address vocabulary in the context of the text.  For each reading assignment, students will pick out a word from the text they don’t know.  They’ll bring the word to class, and we’ll discuss a few of the words each day, coming up with our definition of the word as a class.

3.  Post-Reading:  The activity we will do post-reading is for each student to create a bookcast.  In a digital format, students will put together a reader response multimedia presentation combining music, pictures, video, and text.  This will serve as the first step in our post-reading activities, so the videos should be a guttural response, rather than analytical.  I will give them one class period to do this, and then two nights to work on it at home if they don’t finish.  Again, this activity is based on the theory of reader response.

D. Assessment:

I will be making sure to take an informal assessment of students’ understanding daily through our discussions of plot, themes, vocabulary, etc.  Anytime there is group work, I will be circulating to listen to their conversations.  Formal assessment will be taken through the bookcast.

Checklist for bookcast:

  • Bookcast is a personal, guttural reader-response, not a summery or a trailer for the book
  • Bookcast uses images, video, text, and music that all contribute to its message
  • Bookcast encourages audience to think creatively
  • Bookcast properly sites borrowed intellectual property and uses only materials that follow guidelines discussed in class
  • Bookcast is aestheticly appealing and demonstrates students’ attention to detail

E. Question Labels:


What do you know about the Hutu/Tutsi conflict?  (Remembering)

During Reading:

What does gusimburo mean, and how does it represent the life of Deo? (Understanding, analyzing)


Do you think it was effective for Kidder to divide the book in the way he did? (evaluating)

III. Evaluation

To apply this SRE, I asked my husband Tom, who has already read the book, to participate.  In general, the implementation went well, though I had to modify many of the phases because they were designed for a group.  For the pre-reading section, he chose his own digital story from the website and retold it to me.  Then I asked him what he knew about the Hutu/Tutsi conflict, and I filled in the blanks with a mini-lesson.

For the during-the-reading portion, I only asked him to read the first 30 pages.  He came up with questions, and we discussed them.   The post-reading section worked very well, and Tom said he enjoyed the bookcast and wished that we’d done them in high school.  RCA2011


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Learning with Text

When I think back to my K-12 school years, I cannot think of many times when teachers used trade books in content area classrooms.  In general, English was the only class in which we read anything other than textbooks.  Perhaps that’s why, when a science teacher used texts other than textbooks, I grew interested in science for the first time.  My 12th grade AP environmental science teacher started out the course by assigning us to read and respond to Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild.  As a lover of nonfiction, I started out the course engage and interested in the material.  She is the only teacher that I remember using “trade books” in the content area classroom.

I found Probst’s description of transactional reading to be thought-provoking and convincing.  The power of reading, in his opinion, is with the reader.  He writes, “Reading should not be an effort to suppress the personal and idiosyncratic in a search for a purified reading, uncontaminated by the reader’s individuality.  Transactional theory insists that the reader’s individuality must be respected and considered, that readers initially understand a work only on the basis of prior experience” (Probst 379).  To me, this is a fresh and encouraging perspective on reading that offers teachers the reassurance that there’s always a place to start–with students’ prior knowledge.

The fact that I’m a future English teacher makes it easy to conceive of using non-textbook reading in my classroom.  In fact, I would never choose to use a textbook in my classroom, except for things like supplementing a mini-lesson, for example.  I was particularly interested in the textbook’s description of performance responses to trade books to enhance comprehension.  I can see myself using strategies like these in my classroom to “heighten understanding of the often dense and complex expository material found in today’s nonfiction” (Vacca, Vacca, & Mraz 390).  Many of the techniques detailed in the readings will be useful as I seek to improve reading comprehension in my classroom with trade books.  RCA2011.


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Making Connections…


Motivation is a very complicated issue.  There have been several different motivators for me in my education thus far, but something that might motivate me might not motivate someone else.  My motivation to read for myself comes from enjoyment and interest–I read because I want to read.  Reading for school, however, has sometimes been for the sole purpose of academic success.  Especially in subject areas I wasn’t interested in during high school and college, the only thing driving me to pick up a text was a grade.  While grades can be effective motivators for some, they fail many others.  They also are probably not the best motivators for even high achievers because many, including myself, develop the ability to fake comprehension for a grade.  I think the best motivator, which is difficult to cultivate in a classroom, is genuine interest.  Unless students are coming into your class already interested, which is unlikely, the way I see this being achieved is only through passionate and creative teaching.


The texts, for me, brought light to the importance of prior knowledge and metacognition in reading comprehension and motivation.  Though I have background knowledge about schema theory and have an understanding of how important metacognition is in the reading process, it was helpful to read about specific teaching strategies that make use of these theoretical principles in the classroom.  In this way, the readings didn’t change my mind about prior knowledge and metacognition, but rather gave me ideas of how to apply these theories in the classroom.

The Spires and Donley article was helpful in that it provided research-based evidence the for effectiveness of prior-knowledge activation strategies.  The point I found most interesting, though, is that not only did the PKA group outperform the other group, but they also displayed a more positive attitude toward reading.  They write, “One potential reason for the more positive attitudes exhibited by the PKA group is that the inclusion of personal knowledge is inherently more motivating than the relatively low-interest task of extracting main ideas” (Spires & Donley 9).  This ties directly back to my pre-reading assertion that it is genuine interest that best cultivates motivation.

Closely related to the suggestion that a positive attitude toward reading leads to motivation is the textbook’s claim that self-efficacy is also directly related to motivation.  Many of the prereading scaffolding strategies that the text gives, I deduced, were designed to develop the students’ sense of self-efficacy.  For example, I particularly liked the section about making predictions, because I think doing so helps students feel like an active participant.  Also, tools like the anticipation guide for Night can be helpful in making the text relevant while increasing students’ self-efficacy through active construction of the text.

Though I see the value of many of these strategies that are designed to aid the student through the reading process, I do feel that overusing them can suck the fun out of reading.  I’ve thought about this a lot in relation to writing; in our high-stakes testing era, the emphasis, at least in my experience, is exclusively on the 5-paragraph analytical essay.  While I know students need to learn how to execute this proficiently, I think it’s important to let students explore other kinds of writing so they have a shot at developing a love of the art.  Also, in my experience, writing just to write has value, which is why I think activities like an ungraded daily journal have value.  By the same token, I think that reading just to read has value as well.  If all the reading I did in school was scaffolded in ways detailed in the textbook, I don’t think I would enjoy reading at all.  While I do plan to use many of the prereading  strategies designed to engage students’ pre-existent knowledge, I think they can be overused.  Their implementation should be thoughtful and have a specific purpose.  RCA2011.


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