Engineering in Reading- Building Worlds and Scenes

Making forts was a way of life for me when I was child. Throw me a rope and a sheet and I could build you any type of fort. Outdoors, indoors, it didn’t matter. Building a structure meant creating a new space, one where the imagination could be set free. As a teacher, the same holds true, and it’s a powerful teaching technique.

When I was nine, my parents bought a bright yellow foam couch from Ikea for our living room. It was hideous. A total eyesore. But this couch was a reader’s dream come true. It was a dream come true because its arms were made out of sturdy, thick foam and were removable. This meant that the couch’s arms could stand up vertically to hold bed sheets and create tents. This bright yellow couch was my reading portal. My sisters and I built the bed from Norton’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks, the attic in Hodgson’s A Little Princess, and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie. The couch was our space to recreate the scenes from the stories we loved so much.

When I stepped into my first classroom space, I smiled. I had four walls. Four glorious walls that could be transformed into any space I wanted. This was better than the couch for sure! These four walls could be transformed into a fantasy land, a mystery, a poetry café, or a historical time period. The possibilities were endless!

Changing the physical environment in my classroom is an important part of my teaching. I want my students to live inside the stories they love. For each reading unit, I transform the physical classroom space to match the genre we are studying. What does this look like?

  • If we’re reading a whole class read aloud, my students build a scene out of PVC pipes.
  • When we’re studying poetry, the room is transformed into a poetry café, complete with awning, butcher block paper walls (for poetry writing), table top lamps, and bins filled with coffee beans for the aroma.
  • When I’m teaching mystery, we set up a crime scene and clues.
  • Historical fiction might include building museum displays, train cars, and life-size models of buildings.
  • When we’re reading fantasy fiction, we build a castle.
  • We build puppet theaters, stages with curtains, and wishing wells.

PVC piping is an fantastic way to help your students build structures in the classroom. It is cheap and easy to purchase at Home Depot or Lowes. Once you have the pipes (I’ve had mine cut into 3ft pieces and 1ft pieces) you’ll want to buy different connectors- see in the pictures below. You’ll find that your students are natural builders and can engineer any structure. Conversations about measurement, symmetry, and angles ensue during these building projects. They are excellent opportunities to connect students’ reading to math, physics, and architecture.

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Locating Text Evidence: Scaffolding Tips (Part 2)

We begin planning our scaffolds by thinking about where students may begin—and what we want them to learn. With these goals in mind, we begin thinking about the many ways we will support our students. How will we break down all the steps in between? For example, in fifth grade, my students might begin by knowing how to identify text evidence, but they might not know how to weigh the evidence in order to determine its strength.

After you assess your students’ familiarity with locating text evidence to support their claims, the following scaffolding tips might be helpful to use during your minilessons, small group work, or one-one-one instruction.

Tip #1: “Relate it to Real Life- What is Text Evidence?” Students may need to learn what text evidence means. To teach this, discuss “What is evidence?” and “How do people use evidence in real life?” Next, talk about what text evidence looks like: a quote, plot or event summary, a single detail, or a string of connected, linked details or events.

Screen shot 2014-05-01 at 2.29.12 PMTip #2:Select Text Evidence in Advance” Selecting text evidence in advance is a great way to begin working with it. Talk with your students about how the text evidence supports the claim. What is the role of text evidence? Why is it valuable?

Tip #3: “Inquiry Work” Locating text evidence is not a “one size fits all” approach for every concept you teach. I wish it was! Students will look for different types of text evidence based on the concept at hand. Students need to think about which types of text evidence will help support their claim prior to looking for the evidence. Otherwise, it would be like searching for a needle in a haystack. For example, if your students are studying mood, they might be looking for text evidence that describes the setting, the characters’ responses/actions, or the author’s word choice.

Do some inquiry work with your students. Ask them to examine a variety of pre-selected pieces of text evidence and have them identify what types of evidence they have. This can lead to generating class charts and notes about what types of text evidence they might be on the lookout for.

Tip #4: “Pair Up to Find More!” Once students have identified text evidence that supports their claim, model ways they can go back to the text in search of any evidence they may have left out or did not consider. Pair them up to talk through their choices and any additional text evidence they may have left out. Create a chart or class notes that outlines the steps needed to be sure they have made purposeful choices about selecting text evidence. Modeling the act of going back to the text for MORE evidence is one of the most valuable skills you can teach your students.

DSC00845Tip #5: “Model! Model! Model! Can it be Stronger?” Model how to weigh text evidence by looking at a claim and ranking the strength of pre-selected text evidence. Model this first, and then have your students write their evidence on sticky notes and order them from weakest to strongest. (Here you can see the student ranked hers from 1 (the weakest) to 5 (the strongest. She was analyzing the mood in the book A Nation’s Hope.) Discuss their ideas. What makes some evidence stronger than others.

I enjoy planning scaffolding strategies for my units and lessons. Just like the mama bird, we want our students to fly.

Scaffolding: Lessons Learned from a Mama Bird (Part 1)

Screen shot 2014-05-01 at 3.25.07 PMOne morning I woke up early to walk my dog, and I was lucky enough to see one of nature’s miracles- a mama bird teaching its baby how to fly.

At first I wasn’t sure what was happening. The mother bird was chirping loudly and was picking her baby up from behind with its feet. She was lifting the baby up a little bit at a time and flapping her wings. The baby, unsure of what was happening, was crying loudly. The mother had great patience. She picked the baby up, flapped her wings, and then put the baby down again. She repeated this process over and over for about twenty minutes. At the end, the baby bird was trying to flap its small wings too and had stopped crying. Pleased with the baby’s progress, the mama bird set the baby down and took a break. I stood and stared at this incredible event. It was a rare and magical moment. I had always wondered how the mama bird taught its baby to fly. Now I knew the answer- scaffolding.

Helping students learn how to “fly” on their own, especially when locating text evidence, can be challenging. It is important to put scaffolds in place in order to support each student through the learning process. Scaffolding is not a sink or swim approach. It allows the teacher to gradually release students from instructional supports thereby helping students learn how to do the task at hand with as much or as little support as they need.

1) Keep a List of Scaffolds– I like to keep a list handy of ways to scaffold a lesson or unit. This way, I can refer to the list when creating lessons and units. This list might include: inquiry work, modeling with a picture book, pre-selecting examples, using sticky notes or strips of paper to sort, using exemplar models, using non-exemplar models, creating steps, etc. When I’m planning a lesson or a unit, I like to use this list so I have strategies for scaffolding at the ready.

2) Plan Scaffolds Ahead- When planning your whole class lessons, small group work, and one-on-one times, plan the scaffolds you’ll need in advance and have them at the ready. I jot scaffold ideas on a sticky note if I’m meeting with a small group of students or one-on-one. This way- I’m on the go! Plus there’s a record.

3) Models! Models! Models! Don’t we all need to see what something should look like? Keep a folder or binder with examples and models. This is my go-to strategy for scaffolding my lessons. Planned in advance, this can be a life-saver! @KateRoberts talks about the importance of creating a “Conferring Toolkit” filled with models. This is an awesome strategy!

4) Breaking it Down into Steps- I like to write down steps on sticky notes for students. For example, if I’m teaching a student how to construct an interpretation about symbolism in a text, I want to give them steps that they can follow “First, Second, Next, Last.” This way they have a road map. The best part about providing steps as scaffolds is that you can break down the steps differently for each student by adding or subtracting steps.

5) Record Keeping of Scaffolds– Keep track of the scaffolds you have in place for students, including any changes. These records can help you reflect on the strategies that have been the most successful for students. Also, they illuminate the ways students have grown and reached their goals.