An effective language arts classroom reminds me of a powerful snow storm. Like snowflakes, students enter the room with unique literacy skills necessary to be successful readers, writers, speakers, and listeners. Like snowflakes, no two students possess the same skills because learning to read and write is a journey, and the literacy path must be traveled independently. Some students will read like newscasters but may not comprehend meaning. Others might understand what they read but struggle with pronunciation. Some student writers create powerful prose because they organize well, others create powerful word pictures due to an enhanced vocabulary, and yet others spell or punctuate better than most of their peers. The challenge for language arts teachers is to analyze the current knowledge patterns in the room, predict which skills need to be taught in order to help all students improve their reading and writing abilities, and create an environment that fosters community when students struggle with concepts so they can connect with other experts in the room. If done well, new skills taught will create a deeper layer of learning that will transform every student’s literacy landscape.
So how is this done? I wish there was a lock step method, but there isn’t. Not only do students come to me with varied literacy skills, but they also enter the room with radically different learning styles. Recognizing those learning styles early in the year and developing lessons which incorporate as many of them as possible will deepen understanding for more students.
For students who need to move, it’s important to create lessons that allow this. This may seem counterintuitive in a classroom where students are learning sedentary tasks like reading and writing, but if included, kinesthetic learners will retain more. Acting things out may help these students. Performing skits can cement understanding. This year, I asked students to create original skits to demonstrate theme, act out parts of stories to show how tone was developed by word choice, and added gestures to teach various language artsconcepts. For example, I had students in one class use gestures to punctuate dialogue when tags were at the end of the sentence. The students had fun, and many of them now apply this skill to their writing. Additionally, I have incorporated a gesture for the terms “connotation” where I pound my heart and act like I am sweeping emotion out as I say, “Connotation is the feeling a word gives off,” and I have held out my left hand as if it is a piece of paper and pointed to it with my right when I define explicit as “evidence that is right there in the text.” These small gestures seem to make the learning stick for these types of learners.
Still other students require lots and lots of repetition. This year, I had my students spell and define the following words to build a base knowledge: alliteration, simile, personification, metaphor, onomatopoeia, and hyperbole. Students took the test over and over until they scored 100%. Some did this quickly. Others required multiple attempts. Others still struggle. But more often than not, my students can now rattle off these definitions, and I am confident if given a multiple choice question requiring them to identify an example of one of these poetic devices, more will be able to answer the question correctly than before. I have also required students to write weekly paragraphs this year. For ten weeks, students were given prompts. They created a four square where the content of the paragraph was planned, wrote a rough draft, peer revised, and wrote a final draft. Programs such as Study Island are also effective for students who need skill repetition.
Verbal learning is also prevalent in my classes this year, so we have had Socratic seminars to take advantage of this. Students enjoyed learning from one another and, without realizing it, they practiced higher order thinking skills, supported their opinions with textual evidence, and practiced listening to their classmates’ opinions, asked questions when they disagreed, and built upon each others’ understanding. The common core is big on these speaking and listening skills.
A key component of created a deeper layer of understanding in the classroom is empowering students to teach each other. This is one reason I am such a proponent of writer’s workshop. Students are often able to explain concepts to each other better than I can. This interdependence is crucial to ensuring every student in the room improves his or her literacy skills. I have noticed that when students pick their own writing peer editors, they tend to find other writers who write as they do. Great writers pair with other great writers. Emerging writers pair with emerging writers. Because of this, I incorporate writing revisions “rounds” in my room. Students pick their first partner. After ten minutes, they find a new partner. Then we do a third round where they find another partner. Usually, after three rounds, students have met with at least one peer who will show them how to improve their writing. Often, they find three different people who have specific suggestions for improvement. For students who are not as popular, this requiresother peers to work with them. Because everyone knows we will do this three times, students are less likely to refuse to workwith a partner.
Hopefully, when students leave my room this year, they willhave improved their literacy skills individually I have provided the next steps necessary to help them on their literacy learning paths and they see the value in learning from other experts in the room. If I do this well, many students will realize they possess unique literacy skills and will build upon others. In this way, my little snowflakes will be able to create a thicker layer of literary skills that will transform their futures.