Working to Improve Reading Responses (Part 1)
Feb 26th, 2014 by jonmoss

Note from Jon: This is the first of (probably) three posts that address reading comprehension and critical response skills.  This particular post is an updated version of a message I wrote three years ago on our class website.  I know it’s long, but you might find it helpful!

One of the primary focuses of reading instruction is helping students to improve the quality of their short answer responses.  Unlike multiple choice, true false, or fill-in-the-blank items in which there is a clear right answer, SAR tasks create situations in which students’ success hinges on the quality of their responses, not just their accuracy.  I tend to find that there are three rules that often help students to be more successful when writing their own short answer responses:

  1. Always show the reader that you read and understood the story or article.  PROVE IT!
  2. Always include some sort of textual support to explain your answer.
  3. Read the WHOLE question!  Answer the WHOLE question!

Can you tell what the big trouble spots are?  All three rules include the idea of needing to fully address the question by including relevant story details.  Frequently, students lack the necessary supportive evidence from the text to reinforce their answer.  As I often remind the students, any SAR question faced during reading has one main goal:  To determine if the student understood and can interpret what he or she has read.  If the student’s response lacks specific detail from the text, the reader has no way of measuring the student’s understanding.  Take, for example, the following question and answer:

Question: What two questions would you ask the author of this article?

Answer: I would ask her why she chose to write about insects and what kind of insect is her favorite.

At face value, this response looks like it successfully answers the question – and in all fairness, it does.  But while the question does not explicitly require students to integrate information from the article, this (fictional) student’s failure to do just that leaves us with a weak answer that does not show any understanding of the story.  Both of the questions that the student suggested in his or her response show only a cursory understanding of the text: the story is about insects.  There is no evidence of any in-depth understanding.  This alternate response shows more in-depth comprehension by including details from the (pretend) article:

There are two questions that I would ask the author.  First, I would ask her “Why are centipedes called centipedes if they can actually have between 20 and 300 legs?”  Centi means “hundred,” so I would expect a centipede to have 100 legs.  I would also ask “Are insects with exoskeletons larger than those with skeletons inside their bodies?”  I’ve never seen a large insect before.

Notice a few particular strengths with this response.  First, the student clearly wrote two questions – ending in question marks.  (Yup, that matters!)  Second, the student’s suggested questions include appropriately used terminology from the text (centipedes, exoskeletons) and concepts from the text (20-300 legs, meaning of centi, exoskeletons are outside the body).  By including relevant details from the text, the student has shown that he or she is able to read and understand the text and that they can evaluate information in order to use the most relevant details as supportive evidence.  This is a strong response.

This type of activity is hardly new.  Students have been going “full-steam” on short answer responses since the start of third grade, if not earlier.  Our expectations for short answer responses don’t change much from year to year, minimizing the “moving target” problem for kids.  So why do some students continue to struggle?  I see three possible causes:

  1. Some students are having a genuinely hard time.  This describes the student who sees the question, thinks about what the best possible response could be, but for any number of reasons, he or she is not crafting successful responses.  The student may not be struggling with the skill, per se, but he or she may simply have yet to master the grade-level expectations that go with the skill of writing a short answer response.   I’m continuing to work with students on an ongoing basis to help them to strengthen their skills.
  2. Sadly, some students are unsuccessful because they simply did not carefully read the question being asked of them.  Consider the two part question: “Do you agree with Laura’s decision at the end of the story?  What advice would you give her so she could solve her problem without hurting Lester’s feelings?”  A student could write an outstanding response about why they do or do not agree with Laura’s decision, citing lots of support from the text.  But without addressing the second part of the question, the response falls short, and so will the score.  Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for responses to be more off-base than the example I’ve cited in this paragraph.  Sometimes kids write an answer that may be well-crafted and thorough, but it may also be entirely irrelevant to the question asked, and again, points cannot be given.
  3. The most disappointing cause of difficulty is when students simply do not appear to be working with their best effort and focus.  This is not a lack of understanding or mastery.  Rather, in this situation, students may quickly write a cursory response that lacks detail or support because they chose not to work to their potential because, perhaps, they hurried through their work.   These responses do not show a thorough understanding of the text, even though the student may truly have a high degree of comprehension.  Convincing students of the need to put more thought and effort into their work is very challenging, because it’s a decision they need to make for themselves.  No amount of prodding from you or from me will make it happen.  Rather, they need to choose (hopefully with our help) that it’s time to bring their proverbial “A-game” to class.  I’m bringing this up to you en masse for two reasons:  First, I think that all students can benefit from a reminder about the importance of doing their best possible work.  All of us, every now and then, fall short of this, so some helpful encouragement is valuable.  Second, in some cases, I see this as a behavioral issue – if a student is choosing not to put in their best effort, despite having been reminded of the importance of doing so, they are not following directions and are not showing responsibility.  That’s something I hope we can tackle together.

At the end of this week, your fourth grader will bring home his or her literacy binder for your to review over the weekend.  In it, you will find several new work samples, many of which are short answer responses.  As you review your child’s responses, look at their use of evidence and see how it influenced their score.  (As a reminder, short answer responses are scored out of four possible points, with a goal of three points.)    Conferences are coming up in a few weeks, and I look forward to talking with you more about this.

In my next post, I’ll share some strategies for how students can carefully select the most helpful textual evidence to support their responses.  

Choosing topics about the Winter Olympics
Feb 25th, 2014 by jonmoss

Remember, your three topics must be general enough that they can include much of the relevant, important information that you’d want to share with someone who is unfamiliar with the Winter Olympics.

Student Email Accounts
Feb 7th, 2014 by jonmoss

Today, students were excited (to put it mildly) to receive their own Avon Public Schools email addresses.  We set them up as a class, and students sent test emails to me and to their classmates.  These email addresses also enable Google Drive, which will allow for students to collaborate in and out of school on assignments, in addition to making some of our online homework assignments more secure.

Students have their log in information written on post-it notes in their planners.  (Plus, if your child has difficulty logging in, I have copies of their usernames and passwords and can help out over the weekend.

We spent a significant amount of time discussing proper email behavior.  While we talked a lot about the SERIOUS, MAJOR topics, such as cyber bullying, internet safety, and the permanency of online communications, we also discussed email etiquette.  We spoke about how to appropriately use the subject line, choosing how to include recipients, and more.  As kids continue to use their new accounts, I will certainly continue to take advantage of teachable moments to extend these skills.  Remember, using email isn’t just a technical know-how skill.  It also includes new social norms, pragmatics, and problem-solving skills.

Here are a few things you might want to know about the email accounts and how I am managing them:

  • As discussed in the Responsible Usage Agreement that students and parents signed in the fall, email accounts are being distributed to students in Avon Schools starting in gr. 4.
  • Students can only send email to and receive email from other email accounts.  (So you cannot email your fourth grader, nor can they email you.  This is for privacy and safety reasons.)
  • All emails (and other electronic communications within the Google system) are archived pursuant to federal law.
  • I do have usernames and passwords for all student email accounts.  (I told students this in advance of them choosing their passwords since I know some students may have preferred passwords that they use for many things but might not want to share with me.)
  • I told students that they MUST share their username and password with their parents.  (If they don’t, email me and I’ll share it.)  No secrets here!
  • When composing new messages within a web browser, it’s easy to send an email to another APS individual with the same first or last name that the user has started to type.  It’s important to carefully select the RIGHT recipients.
  • I take any sort of online teasing (up to and including cyber-bullying) very seriously.  Kids, don’t test me on this.
  • Kids may not set up their APS email accounts on any device (such as an iPad) without parental permission.  (Although some kids have their own devices, some parents may prefer that online communication stays on a family computer so they can supervise.  That’s why I made this rule.)  If parents are ok with this, then be my guest!
  • Some teachers have prohibited non-school-related emails between students.  I haven’t, because I think that social emailing is a good way to learn the “ins and outs” of email use and etiquette.  We discussed how quickly social emails can become “spam” and an irritation to others.  Students have been told that it’s up to their PARENTS to decide whether they can socially email classmates outside of school.  Friendly emails are fine with me, but excessive social emailing can become an issue.  Again, this is not something that kids have an innate understanding of, so we will need to teach these skills on an ongoing basis.  (That’s why I don’t ban social emailing – so we can TEACH it, not just prohibit it.)
  • Students are welcome to email me when they have questions or concerns.  In the past, I’ve always CC’ed parents when I reply to students.  But since you will have their usernames and passwords, I may not continue to do so.  I explained to kids that there is one of me and 22 of them, so if I get inundated with emails, I will reply to urgent emails more quickly than to social emails.
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Feb 6th, 2014 by jonmoss

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Parentheses, Concert Practice
Jan 14th, 2014 by jonmoss

Here is a video review of using parentheses for solving word problems:

Also, Miss Torres has asked you to spend a bit of time practicing your concert music.  Here is her homework assignment:

Log on to Miss Torres’ website and practice the chorus songs!!
Especially Little Birch Tree and Wonderland of White!
Rehearsal Thursday.  Dress Rehearsal and performance for Town Meeting day of the concert January 23rd!
Parents: Seeking Your Input
Jan 14th, 2014 by jonmoss

Hello, families!  I am in the process of designing a new website for our class.  I am eager to hear your input about what features you would like in a new class website.  I’d appreciate you participating in this survey at your earliest convenience.  This is a survey for parents, not for students.

Update on Number the Stars
Jan 9th, 2014 by jonmoss

Good evening! Tomorrow is the last day that the Jaime from the Hartford Stage will be with fourth grade classes teaching lessons about Number the Stars, and I wanted to give you an update on how those activities have been going. She has been doing a wonderful job helping the kids to understand what takes place in Number the Stars. Her activities focus much more on the events in the book than they do on specific details about the Holocaust in general, which helps to keep the activities appropriate for kids.

Monday’s lesson focused primarily on dramatic terms and activities to help the kids to get prepared for the rest of the week. On Tuesday, the learned more about the character of Ellen Rosen, a young Jewish girl living in Copenhagen, whose life has changed because of the Nazi presence. The kids learned a bit about what was happening during the Holocaust, and particularly how it affected Ellen’s relationship with her non-Jewish friend, Annemarie. These programs tend to progress through key parts of the book, so Wednesday’s activity focused on a section that took place later on in the novel, where Ellen’s family learned that they must leave in order to avoid being captured by the Nazi soldiers. The kids learned that Annemarie’s family willingly accepted Ellen to stay with them, in hopes of protecting her, while Ellen’s parents sought protection in some other way (that they don’t yet know about). As they had in previous days, the kids participated in some dramatic activities to act out some of the conversations and situations that the young girls found themselves in.

Today’s activities were the most dramatic and revealing. This morning, the kids were invited to role-play what it would be like for them, playing the role of Ellen’s parents, to say goodbye to their daughter who was staying with another family for her own protection. This was a very dramatic activity for the kids, as they had to explain to Jaime, who was playing the role of Ellen, their daughter, why they could not stay with her, and why it was not safe for her to come with them. They did a wonderful job thinking about what the parents would actually say to their daughter in that situation, and they showed their understanding of what they had been taught on previous days.

The final activity from today, however, was the most emotional, and, I think, eye-opening for the kids. By moving desks and chairs, our class was transformed into a train traveling out of Denmark. A Nazi soldier, again played by Jaime (the theater educator), boarded the train and began to interview the passengers (the kids in our class). The kids were all assigned different roles, such as being a member of a Jewish family, being a member of a group of non-Jewish colleagues who were traveling for business, and other various roles. As they were questioned by the Nazi soldier, the kids did a very impressive job sticking to their characters as they tried to prove that they should not be targets of the soldier’s investigations. As really happened in history, the soldier identified many people, Jews and non-Jews, that she thought needed to be taken off the train. Passengers (the kids) were forced to quickly think on their feet and to come up with explanations to try and save themselves and their companions. This sparked a rich discussion later on as we discussed what the kids were thinking about during the activity.

There is no doubting that this is a very realistic activity. One of the challenges in teaching kids about the Holocaust is helping kids to develop a frame of reference. Here, fortunately, the kids in our class do not generally have any basis for understanding the concepts of genocide, hatred, and Anti-Semitism. We work very hard to give the kids an understanding of what happened, and an ability to relate to the experiences of people who lived during that time, while not putting the kids under undue stress.

Following these activities, the kids and I always have follow-up conversations, and I encourage kids to share their feelings and their concerns. I always reassure the students that these are events that happened long ago, and that they are safe here in their homes, in Connecticut. When the kids share how sad it is to learn about this, I remind them about the importance of learning about these historical events, among other reasons, so that we can make absolutely sure that nothing like this ever happens again.  We had a wonderful conversation about the challenges that people in Europe (Jews and non-Jews) faced in the 1930’s and 1940’s, and I was really impressed by the kids’ mature contributions to the discussion.  We were excited to welcome Superintendent Gary Mala, Assistant Superintendent Donna Rusack, and Mr. Giannini, who visited while making rounds throughout the building.

Some of the kids may  come home and start discussions about these activities. I encourage you to continue to have these discussions with your children, as I try to avoid going into some of the more graphic details with kids. Students are explicitly asked to avoid discussing these topics during lunch and recess so that they can benefit from having an adult to facilitate the conversations.

If your son and daughter seems concerned or stressed by what they’ve learned, I encourage you to remind them, first and foremost, that their feelings are understandable and valid! I never tell kids “not to be upset” because the material we are learning about is, in fact, upsetting. It’s understandable for kids to feel upset and saddened by the events, but if they are afraid, I remind them that these are events from long ago, and that they are safe in their own communities. I also remind them that the police in their community are very different from the Nazi soldiers who patrolled the streets in Copenhagen, and that the police officers in their town are trustworthy, safe people who really are there to help and protect them.

Tomorrow will be the last day of the role playing activities. They will learn about some of the later events in the text, and at the end, the students will receive copies of the novel. This week’s activities will serve as a framework for when we read the novel together.  I ask that you continue to discourage your kids from reading or learning about the book until we read it in class together.

Please continue to be in touch with me if you have any questions as we continue this important unit.

NTS3 – Hiding from the Nazis
Jan 8th, 2014 by jonmoss

Today in class, you did a terrific job when Jaime came in for Number the Stars.  I think you all asked thoughtful questions as Jaime played the part of the Rabbi who was telling the people about the Nazi’s plans.  I know this can be sad and maybe even scary stuff to learn about, but I’m glad that you are participating so maturely.  You can always come to me if you have a question or a worry.  I’m here to help.

Click here to go to the Padlet discussion for tonight.  It’s the usual password.

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