4 Uses for Newsela to Help Struggling Readers in Special Education

There is a divide between teachers and administrators when it comes to addressing the needs of lower performing readers.  Administrators want data in the form of charts, graphs, and test scores to show parents how the school is raising the reading level of their child while teachers want time for reading, choice books in hands, and discussions about personal connections, intertext connections and world connections.  The battle plays out year after year and when there is a new administrator, teachers think, for a moment, this time things will be different.

But it’s always the same-the results are felt by students in classrooms all over America.  The school buys a “Magic Program” that if used with fidelity, Lexile scores will increase and the charts will look pretty.  The discussion is not about the students or tapping into engagement strategies such as student interest, and this results in frustrated teachers and even more frustrated students who learn only that reading is boring, and a chore.

I’ve been through so many different professional developments on various reading programs such as: Language! and LindaMood Bell and Achieve 3000. While each program sells administrators with data, I’m not sure if administrators question the efficacy of the data–Which student population produced this result?-How many hours a day did students use the program?-How many students was each teacher/facilitator working with for the duration of the program?  As a high school teacher, I have found most programs to be extremely limiting in regards to student interest and choice.

This year, I have a new administrator. And I think things will be different.  Over a portion of the summer, I get to work with two other amazing educators and develop a curriculum for struggling readers.  Yes, it will include a program; however, it is a program that contains interesting material and it allows teachers to control how the lessons are taught and it allows for plenty of student choice.

Upon my suggestions and pleadings, my administrator purchased a three year subscription to the Pro Newsela for our students. I’ve used the unpaid version for various purposes with students, but the advantage to the paid version is that I can write my own directions for what I want students to do while reading, and also create my own writing prompts. The program also contains comprehension questions to allow teachers to give data to their administrators and also know which Lexile level will best challenge each student while reading.

I’ve brainstormed very simple uses for the program that I believe will benefit the students.  Please note that not *all* activities should be done each day–and furthermore, I don’t believe the program should be used everyday.  Most teachers understand that students need variety. While proficient readers internally monitor and adjust their reading strategies to match the challenges of a text, struggling readers have not learned these skills.  Listed below are four ways I believe that Newsela can be combined with other strategies to address struggling readers.

Annotating

Annotating is probably the most important skill to teach all readers.  I tell students this is the way you have a conversation with the text.  Unfortunately, if you do not teach *how* to annotate, and provide examples or sentence frames, students write summaries or small phrases such as: “I like this,” or “This is important.”  My go-to tool for teaching annotation skills for nonfiction texts is Reading Nonfiction: Notice and Note: Stances, Signposts, and Strategies by @KyleneBeers and Robert E. Probst @BobProbst. Annotating texts keeps students focused and helps them check understanding as they read.

Writing

Obviously, if a student struggles with reading, writing is even more problematic.  Sometimes struggling readers can be good with creative writing and poetry, but when it comes to more formal academic style writing, they often don’t know where to start, or what details to include. For the last few years, my school has focused on how to promote critical thinking across the curriculum.  One teacher shared a strategy that I have used ever since.  The technique is SEE-I response which is detailed in Learning to Think Things Through: A Guide to Critical Thinking Across the Curriculum  by Gerald. M. Nosich.

Comprehension

In my Methods of Teaching Special Education class with Sally Spencer, she introduced The Simple View of Reading originally posited by Gough and Tunmer in 1986:

Reading = Decoding + Comprehension

As teachers, we understand that comprehension can be shown through the annotations, through the SEE-I writing response-and various other projects and methods.  Alternately, administrators want data-driven comprehension measurements that are derived from multiple choice questions from programs that measure Lexile levels.  Newsela does have the data component and the best aspect (from the student perspective) is that after each article there are ONLY FOUR QUESTIONS!  While teachers can go about their business of introducing engaging texts and making reading strategies visible, they can simultaneously collect data for administrators and parents in a less painful manner.

Research

Finally, because texts do not exist in isolation, I want to utilize Newsela as a pairing with Poetry 180, a poetry website hosted by Billy Collins who is an amazing poet, and he was also U.S. PoetLaureate from 2001 to 2003. Students will read a poem from the website and then research an article that connects to ideas within the poem.

These are just my initial thought on Newsela–and I’m sure many more will tumble out at unexpected times.  What are some ways you’ve used Newsela to cultivate readers in your classroom?

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Is Grading a Student-Centered Practice? Part 1

The Art of Grading

Last year, a student emailed me during the final week of school:

Dear Mrs. Lee,

I see you’ve given me a D.  I want you to know I really tried in your class.  I think I deserve a better grade than a D.  If you don’t, well then I guess I don’t.

I checked the grades and her point average, a 62%, clearly point to a D.  I’ve done my job, right? She earned a D, she gets a D. But something doesn’t feel right about simply boiling everything down to a number in a grading app to represent a three-dimensional student.  I do further research:

  • Reviewing her essays, she writes tons of interesting details about the text; however, there is not any structure, or any of the component parts of an essay.
  • Her attendance is near perfect
  • In her other classes, she has all Fails, and one D
  • The previous year, she had all Fails and one D.
  • I reflect on how many insightful comments and questions she asked throughout the year.

Is it possible that something is being overlooked? Is there a part of student performance and engagement in the classroom that can’t be captured by grades? As a teacher of students with special needs, I am almost numb to the amount of Ds and Fs my students receive from the collection of their classes.  The lesson my student learned last year, as evidenced in the email, is the lesson I want all students to learn: self-advocacy.  She definitely has a voice and a healthy perspective on her worth as a student.

The Problem

There is a quote arguably  attributed on the internet to Albert Einstein, “Everybody is a genius.  But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”  This same sentiment has been made into cartoon sketches, videos, and it is often used for Special Education professional development.  Despite this focus in schools on Universal Design, alternative assessments, choices in expression of knowledge, many students in special education programs continue to have multiple Fails because they don’t measure up to the rubric, the standards, the points.

I haven’t figured out how to articulate this thought clearly, but I will attempt to get the gist of it here.  If students can do something, they get an A or B or C.  If they can’t do it, they are graded and punished for what they do not know how to do on demand, in a certain format, under specific time constraints.  While discussing this at a table with colleagues, a teacher voiced her opposition:

The Art of Grading

Obviously this is not my position.  However, for students that consistently earn Ds and Fs, the effort to show-up is immeasurable.  MindShift published an article, “The Emotional Weight of Being Graded, for Better or for Worse,” that discusses the impact of ‘bad’ grades on students’ mental health.  Additionally, one professor of neuroscience and psychology is quoted several times explaining that students assess their own knowledge of a subject based on the grade they receive, and also, students are emotionally attached to the grades, which can dictate if they like or dislike the subject. Therefore, if a student Fails a class, s/he will feel that s/he does not know anything pertaining to the topic, and the student will develop an aversion to the subject because s/he received a negative grade in the class.  Considering I work with teens with special needs who often have difficulties acknowledging, naming, and expressing their emotions, it is difficult to comprehend how damaging receiving 3-4 Ds and Fs on every report card is to their general feelings about education and self-worth.

While the emotional needs of a student cannot be a basis for assigning a grade, it is equally inappropriate to state that students who receive Ds and Fs aren’t trying hard enough in class. My teaching philosophy is that every kid wants to learn.  There are multiple reasons why it can appear to a teacher that a student isn’t ‘trying hard enough.’ When a student struggles to understand a concept or subject, often, the student doesn’t understand how to ‘try.’ Sometimes teachers say, “All I want is for him to try,”-and when he attempts to–the result is the same D or F as he earned before this assignment.

At my table of colleagues, I told the story of a student who joined my English class in the middle of the year.  He’s an 11th grader who has never attended a school for more than 10-20 days in a row.  Many grade levels he did not even experience.  He tells me about helping his grandmother set out products on the street in downtown LA to sell at 4 in the morning.  The first writing assignment he completed in my class consisted of one sentence.  Each assignment afterwards, I had someone helping him, even if it was an assessment–so that he could learn how to write a formal response to a text.  We just completed a comparison essay on The Crucible and “Half-Hanged Mary” and he wrote the entire paper by himself.  He wrote three full paragraphs that showed his position and used evidence from the two texts to support his position.  I was thrilled beyond belief for his accomplishment; however, if I graded him on a rubric, he would receive a D or an F.  He did not have any of the three components of an introduction paragraph, he did not write using transitions, and he did not have an in-depth analysis of each text. Despite this, while reading his paper, I felt like I was on a bicycle for the first time, riding without my hands, with a cool breeze guiding me to the next destination–and I know he had to have a similar feeling about his work and effort.

Possible Solutions

In the planning stages, I thought I could get all of my ideas in to one blog post.  However, after writing everything, I will add a part two to discuss how I plan to approach grading for the next school year.

 

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When Students with Special Needs are in Trouble

The House with the Cracked Walls (1892-94) Paul Cezanne

Snippets of conversations I’ve had, in person and digitally, with students over the past seven days:

“Mrs. Lee, can I turn in my classwork handwritten because I’ve been sleeping in my car and I don’t have internet access.”

A comment on Google Classroom over the weekend:

A senior dropping out of high school with only three weeks remaining, “Honestly, I have no idea what I’m going to do because I have no motivation.”

The Call for Help

While working as a teacher in the Special Education department is extremely rewarding, it can alternately be devastating and depressing.  There are nights that I can’t sleep because I’m worried for my students. Not the typical English teacher concerns: Johny-Didn’t-Turn-In-His-Homework, but will my students have a safe, healthy and happy life?

A friend of mine recently blogged about sexual assaults on female students called “But Did We Teach Them to Self Advocate?”  This provides me with two reminders.  First, every teacher in every classroom USA deals with student tragedy.  Secondly, many of my students, even at the high school level, cannot self-advocate.  In fact, more than half of the IEPs I’ve read in my lifetime in this profession have some sort of goal related to self-advocacy.

Two weeks ago, a student with autism came to school early to talk to me about an argument he had with his mom. The student said, “She said I’d go to Hell if I don’t get over my anger.”  This is an example of an 11th grade student with autism, who is struggling to pass English, Geometry, US History, etc., who is simultaneously walking around the school maintaining the belief that he can go to Hell which, in his mind, is probably a fiery pit full of of demons.  While this example is not comparable to the student who sleeps in a car, this belief is debilitating for him and he is unable to emotionally handle this situation.

How to Respond

Over the years, I have learned that there are two basic, but vital steps involved in helping students who are in trouble.  If you do both of these steps, you will help the student, and sometimes be able to sleep at night.

Listen

The first step is to truly hear the specific student when s/he is revealing a problem to you.  For most kids, if they reported a family member said they might go to hell, I would acknowledge their emotional resilience and know this was not a true crisis.  For a student with autism, when words are taken literally, and when the student repeats the words over and over, this can cause a breakdown.

The most important part of this step is just that –listen and hear the student in front of you. Oftentimes, we want to give advice and suggestions. Don’t.  You are not an expert in handling student crisis, nor the student’s parent.

Connect the Student with an Expert

You have to know who the experts at your school are, so that you can connect the student with qualified assistance.  Does your school have DIS counseling? Does your school have a social worker, or someone who can connect the student with a social worker? All too often, we as teachers don’t know about a program or contact at our school until a situation arises and we need to find out that information.  If you are not sure what to do or whom to contact, speak to other teachers; speak to a special education teacher because we have resources and contacts on speed dial; speak to your supervisor.  Investigate what programs and contacts your school has available to you and your students.

At the same time, each school has what I call ‘hidden’ resources-  the person in the attendance office who collects backpacks and clothes for kids who need them, the person in the nurse’s office who collects funds to buy food for families going through a rough patch, etc. We are so lucky to work in schools where there are always an abundance of caring people who help out in ways we sometimes never know about until we need to know.

I love working as a Special Education teacher because I work to develop relationships of trust with students.  Due to this, many students will come and share their problems.  While I can’t solve their problems, or make them go away, I can always listen and connect them with someone that can truly help them.  By doing this, most nights anyway, I can go to sleep.

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