Tuesday, 31 March 2020

Ongoing, Emergency Response, Parents-as-Partners, Teaching & Learning in a Pandemic...

"A good book introduction helps children get ready to read and anticipate what they will read. They have built up expectations and those expectations can help them power through unfamiliar words."  - Russ Walsh

This is the 19th blog post entry of the 2019-20 school year. The first 17 entries were focused on home reading and strategies for parents to assist with building strengths in reading with young children. Last blog entry - posted just before spring break began - we veered off-topic to address the closure of classes. With families continuing in isolation and the school closed to students, I am going to try and blend the two topics together for the next few entries - see how I do!

We are entering the third week of classroom closures and oh! how things have changed in just a couple of weeks! On March 12th, when the NHL shut down, I remember thinking that was a pretty unusual turn of events - 19 days later, that seems like a pretty tame event given all that's happened in the meantime. Every sports league I can name is no longer playing, COVID-19 has closed our borders to most non-Canadian travel, closed all but essential businesses, cancelled our classes and sent us all into self-isolation in our homes. Skype, Zoom and Google have become standard digital locations for communication in a way I would never have imagined just 19 days ago and people are very ill across our own province, as well as the whole world. The stock market has crashed and the price of oil has hit rock bottom - and then gone even lower. These catastrophic changes to our social order have us all on 'tilt', wondering where to anchor, when all this will end and if life itself will ever be the same again.

I don't have any answers to any of those questions, but I do know a bit about teaching reading and about children so I thought I would try and bring a perspective to the events of the last month that really isn't about the traumatic events related to the pandemic at all, but about children and reading. Children are trying make sense of events and occurrences even adults are failing to comprehend with clarity, and are turning to the important adults in their lives to help them find an anchor. Reflecting on my own (rather long!) lived experiences and what has helped me navigate some fairly harrowing events (albeit nothing like this) it seems appropriate to acknowledge and appreciate the immense comfort books and reading offer to us all.

Books are solid, something to hang on to as unchanging when the events of the world seem like they are going to throw you overboard. Stories take us away from ourselves - make us laugh or cry, giggle or frown regardless of how we were feeling just two minutes before we picked up the book. They take us away from wherever we are in reality, calm our anxieties and soothe our breathing. Books and stories can - and should be - our best friends. They can help us envision a future we never anticipated or overcome a past that seemed too terrible to survive. I have come to rely on books as my inspiration, my meditation, my escape and my entertainment - as well as an endless source of thought-provoking information. Most importantly, books offer a foundation of continuity and predictability for children when times are both calm and choppy.

As we enter this new ongoing learning phase where we are not able to be together with the students, our primary goal is to keep connected with each other while encouraging children to continue to find joy in reading. Teachers typically share a read aloud at least once a day with students - often connected to tasks and investigations, so continuing this practice in a virtual way will offer continuity and connection during these unpredictable times. Students usually enjoy read aloud experiences and we use the joy found in these experiences to encourage them to extend knowledge and engage in both learning and extending their own reading practices.

Because read alouds are such a key piece of our daily instructional work, this is the first and most consistent piece of digital learning we have established as part of the daily digital learning experiences.  As children have been connecting with teachers these first two days immersed in our new learning experience, it is so clear they have responded positively and truly loved listening to their teachers reading to them again - and the work they have shared in responding to these stories has been simply outstanding!

We are taking baby steps in this new learning journey, intentionally traveling slowly with both the children and families to ensure relationship, connection and learning remain the focus of  as long as we are immersed in this forced separation. As we gradually expand these experiences to include use of live interactions through Google Classroom and Google Meet, we will remain cognizant of families' time and demands. Please stay in touch with us and let us know how things are going - when we need to pull back or make some changes and how your child is managing with the tasks and expectations.

Parents and guardians are our digital partners in these new learning adventures and we are highly appreciative of your support - as we introduce Google Classroom and Google Meet, we will not be able to support the children directly as they begin to navigate the new platform and will be reliant on parents to offer initial guidance on home devices. We promise to go slowly (it is all new to us as well!) and will continue to be easily accessible to you via email.

There are many ways to engage in learning - reading, listening, speaking, viewing, writing and representing understanding through fine arts. Our focus, as per the directive of Alberta Education, will be on literacy and math and we will do our best to keep students engaged in learning as interactively as possible. What we don't want is for the children to be stressed, worried or feeling inadequate in their learning. Teachers will be in close communication with families throughout and will greatly appreciate feedback as to how the learning is happening at home.

School will look and sound quite different for the forseeable future but will still be 'school', and when we are all back together again we will be able to continue weaving the threads of connection amongst the learning experiences.

Next week on the blog, we'll look at picking up the pieces of learning to read that may have fragmented over the past few weeks with all the social and familial upheavals that have taken place, and how families might support their children in continuing to build reading strengths.

Hoping everyone stays safe and healthy -

Lorraine Kinsman, Principal

Tuesday, 17 March 2020

We Interrupt this Home Reading Series to Talk About School Closures & COVID-19

"The rain will stop, the night will end, the hurt will fade. Hope is never so lost that it can't be found." - Ernest Hemingway

I have kept this blog focused on home reading strategies, ideas and purposes for all of the 2019-2020 school year, believing a continued focus on supporting students' reading at home would be of benefit to our school families.  However, in light of the current provincial situation and the recent cancellation of all classes due to the COVID-19 virus, it seems more prudent to veer from this topic and focus attention on the issues at hand. Classes are indefinitely cancelled and children are expected to stay home. 

Virtually anything that children would consider to be educationally enjoyable - like the Zoo, Telus Spark, pools, recreation centres, etc. have all been closed down as well. Children are expected to stay out of public places and gathering in large groups, and families are trying hard to cope with this new reality. 

Teachers and school staff, too, are trying hard to cope with this new reality. At this point - so new in the process with barely 24 hours passed since the school closure announcement - we do not have much specific information, although we do expect there will be plenty of new direction coming soon from Alberta Education, as well as the Calgary Board of Education. As we face the very real prospect we may not see 'our' students in the classroom again this school year, and grapple with the frightening potential of the statistical data related to COVID-19, there are many mixed emotions, fears and anxieties being expressed on the school landscape in the absence of children. We feel a tremendous responsibility for our students - your children - and are anxiously awaiting information as to how we will be able to continue to support their academic growth through the remaining weeks of this school year.

Learning in the elementary years is foundational and essential to future academic success.  We have worked very hard to support our learners in establishing this foundation and have no intention of not attending to student learning needs through the remaining weeks of school - we are only 2/3 of the way through the school year, and often teachers see students make their greatest academic gains during the last few weeks of school. While teachers are currently cleaning classrooms, sorting student belongings and supplies and trying to make sense of our next steps with students, we want our children and families to know the school year is not finished; it is simply paused briefly while school boards and Alberta Education regroup in the face of an extreme crisis and prepare to launch us into a new approach to student learning.

For now, we have a week before spring break, and the week of spring break itself, as a time for families to enjoy the warming weather and make sense of the quite startling turn of events in our province and across the world. When we return, we will have some solid direction for teaching and learning in an online/out of school environment, and families will have a much greater sense of how 'school' will play out in homes across Tuscany and of course, all of Alberta. Statistically, there may possibly be over 3000 cases of COVID-19 by the end of March, if all our best efforts to minimize the spread of the virus are successful.  Life is moving in strange ways at a very rapid pace, and we are part of that flow.
For this week, we encourage all students to read their class blogs each day - teachers are sending messages daily to students, just to let them know their teachers are here and working on their behalf to make sense of a world suddenly gone 'tilt'.  Teachers will pause over spring break, and then resume blog communications on Monday, March 30, 2020, followed by new online learning and associated activities.  

This Thursday, March 19th, parents will be able to select a time to come to the school and pick up student belongings/medications, as well as any items left with STEM before/after school care. We will continue to communicate with parents via CBE Messenger as appropriate, and plan to also continue sending the Connect Monday message as long as it is relevant as well. 

This is our new reality; however, it is not forever. Schools will open again and children will return - the school will not seem so eerily quiet and still. We look forward to that day with great anticipation! In the meantime, we wish all our families a wonderful spring break together, hoping you all stay healthy and active until we connect again with a new perspective on learning with which to engage our children!

Lorraine Kinsman, Principal

Sunday, 8 March 2020

When Reading at Home Seems to Be a Struggle: What to do?

"Learning to read is a cultural invention...so our brains don't come with that wiring and it's a relatively new invention at that...5000 years that we've had a system that actually represents spoken language! It's a wonderful thing but it's a challenging thing because what we have to do is to use areas of the brain, the left hemisphere, that are really wired for humans to acquire language and we have to build a new neural circuitry to be able to skillfully, automatically, effortlessly pull words off the page while making meaning. And for some children that is just a very difficult thing to do. It has nothing to do with intelligence, nothing to do with exposure. It has everything to do with "I was born with this brain" and skilled reading instruction will address these biological concerns."  Margie Gillis, Ed.D.

This is the seventeenth blog entry focused on Home Reading this school year, intended to help families successfully support children as they learn to read :)

Teachers encourage children to participate in home reading - in fact, in our school, this is primarily the only homework our students in Kindergarten through Grade 4 are expected to do on a daily basis. We encourage this because we all aware of the research supporting the tremendous differences in vocabulary development, language awareness, cadence, comprehension and the ability to make connections between text and real life circumstances that exist between children who either read daily or participate in read aloud experiences for extended periods of time and those who do not, and teachers want all their students to have the best possible opportunities to succeed. Parents support their children in home reading, sometimes reading aloud, sometimes listening to reading, often mixing both kinds of reading over the course of time to keep children interested and excited about learning to read. Typically home reading enhances the learning to read journey and parents are able to track their child's improvements in reading through the weeks and months of a school year, particularly in the earliest years of school.

What happens when, despite best efforts of parents to provide and promote read aloud and home reading experiences, children seem to be struggling mightily to figure out the reading process and develop strengths as a reader?

There are two really critical points to remember at all times, from my perspective:

1) Learning to read is a journey just like all child development is a journey, and every child is going to experience their own journey in their own way; while there are somewhat predictable markers to make note of along the journey, when and where these happen can vary quite significantly from one child to another. Therefore, comparisons with other children are usually more harmful than effective, and wide variances will and do exist between children engaging in the learning to read process. A corollary statement to this recognition lies in the fact that school is a journey as well; no educator expects all children to become proficient at reading within a defined term - we have twelve + years to educate a child fully in basic learning and knowledge acquisition so not becoming a proficient reader in grades 1, 2 or even grade 3 does not mean a child will never be a good reader - some kids just take a little longer to bloom and this is perfectly fine!

2) Home reading is a supplement to being taught to read in school; it is not the only place where children will be learning and practicing reading. Teachers typically play the strongest role in teaching children to read, adding increasingly complex and demanding strategies to students' repertoires of reading strategies as they advance in their understanding of the reading process. We almost always begin with alphabet knowledge in Kindergarten and progress through numerous instructional phases as students acquire and polish their basic reading awareness and applications of that knowledge. Just like learning to read is a journey, it is also a shared responsibility between school and home - neither of us are in this alone! As teachers notice students are acquiring and using basic reading strategies - developing the effortless automaticity that Maggie Gillis refers to in the quote at the beginning of this blog entry - then new strategies to improve fluency, word recognition or comprehension will be introduced. This ensures a child's gradual flow of learning - not too much before they are ready to handle a new strategy, just enough to keep them feeling successful and engaged in enhancing their learning process.

I believe it is critical to remember these points at all times because it helps us keep the journey of learning to read for each child in perspective and takes away the anxiety and fear parents' often feel about their child 'never going to be a reader' or 'is just not a good reader'. Successful readers are scaffolded into reading, not born to it (again, in reference to the introductory quote) because our brains are NOT hardwired for reading; they are hardwired for language acquisition. We need to coax and develop brains into reading!

Sometimes, despite our best efforts between home and school, children do not appear to make much progress with reading. They seem to never become 'smooth' readers, and consistently struggle to remember or appropriately identify seemingly simple words. They begin to resist reading, saying they don't like it. When attempting to decode a new word, it appears a random exercise, with suggestions and sounds apparently unrelated to what is actually written on the page. Often, following either a read aloud or an independent reading experience, they don't seem to understand or be able to identify the content of what was just read, or be able to ask or answer questions about the topic. If these kinds of experiences continue to be typical in a child for longer than a few months, the teacher is likely to bring that to a parent's attention, and set some specific learning interventions in place. 

At EHS, we will regroup our readers with considerable challenges into smaller, direct teaching groups for some intensive intervention, for example. Or set them up with Calgary Reads/EHS Reads volunteer tutors for a couple of extended reading sessions per week for several months to increase their opportunities for building skills through practice and repetition of reading. Or, if the challenges with learning to read appear to be connected to worry or anxiety about reading, they may be offered the opportunity to participate in a series of reading experiences with one of our therapy animals (Hope, our therapy rabbit, or one of the Puppy Pals therapy dogs that visit our school) to build confidence and relieve anxieties associated with reading. 

Should these additional supports still not gain traction with students and help them achieve the fluency, automaticity and comprehension we would typically expect to see acquired through the first two or three years of reading instruction, parents might find themselves in meetings with the teacher, Diversity Learning Leader and/or school Administrator talking about the possibility of psycho-educational testing to discover whether or not a learning disability is present. A learning disability is not a negative thing, it just describes a particular neural circuitry the brain is struggling to appropriately develop and the testing offers insights and suggestions for more direct interventions to build student success. There was a time, several years ago and before, when the identification of a learning disability carried great stigma in schools but that is no longer true - identifying a learning disability now simply means that child will get whatever supports and accommodations that are necessary to ensure they continue to build successful learning going forward in their education - and these accommodations are able to be continued on through university, if need be - a godsend for all intelligent children who might initially struggle with reading and making sense of text.

Through the past sixteen blog entries this school year focused on home reading, I have offered numerous strategies and insights into the reading journey. This entry is intended to help answer questions many parents have about their child not being a good reader, especially in the early years of learning to read. To recap (generally!) many of the strategies suggested in previous blog entries, the key things to remember about home reading and supporting your child with the learning to read process are:

- activate prior knowledge when sitting with your child to read, either to or with them; look at the pictures, talk about the title, ask about and/or offer connections to the child's previous experiences before actually engaging in reading the book
- make predictions and ask why your child is making a particular prediction - make suggestions as appropriate without overwhelming
- use letter/sound and word attack strategies as your child attempts to decode new words, including talking about blends, digraphs, prefixes, suffixes, etc. - find out what your child knows about these things and how you might be able to help him/her grow in their understanding of how letters make words, words make sentences, sentences make sense!
- identify key words - or new words; those that your child is stumbling over, and play some games to remember them; talk about meaning, why these new words are important in understanding the text, ask questions and encourage your child to ask questions
- make sense of text as it is being read; ask questions, clarify understandings, summarize at the end

These basic steps will ensure an effective home reading experience for you and your child. There are many, many more ideas contained in previous blog entries; no one can predict which child will benefit most from which strategy so students must have a repertoire to refer to as they engage repeatedly and joyously in the reading/learning to read process.

Sometimes the learning to read journey seems to go great, then slow down and later pick up again. Occasionally, it will feel like the journey stalls even as it begins. Frequently the learning to read journey seems to unfold in fits and starts, with successes intermingled with challenges. Every child to himself seems to best sum up the learning to read experiences.  It is important to remember the child, teacher and parent are all involved in this journey together and that the journey will be idiosyncratic to your child at all times.

I have great faith in the learning to read process, having had the immeasurable pleasure of watching and supporting students learning to read for decades. I know this process is greatly enhanced by daily reading at home with a trusted and supportive parent or family member. I know learning to read sometimes feels like a never-ending journey (and it truly is!), one we didn't really count on as parents in the early days of babyhood with our children. It is also rewarding beyond belief to be able to note and track their triumphs and challenges as our children acquire and utilize reading strategies in their own lives!

Next week's blog entry will focus on comprehension strategies for both younger and more proficient readers.  Happy reading, everyone!

Lorraine Kinsman, Principal
Eric Harvie School 

Sunday, 1 March 2020

Reading Strategies for Developing Readers - Part Two - It's All Reading!

"But if you really want kids to love reading, teach them to read. Achievement does more for motivation than the other way around. Set up opportunities for kids to work together and with you around books. Encourage them to include reading in their daily lives away from school. If you want them to care about books, give them a chance to take on books that may be too hard for them, but that they think to be worth the effort. Give them ways to gain social rewards for using the knowledge they gain from their reading." - Timothy Shanahan

This is the sixteenth blog entry focused on Home Reading this school year, intended to help families successfully support children as they learn to read :)

Last week's blog entry focused on seven strategies parents might use at home to support their developing readers, including predicting, developing sight words, using basic decoding skills, discussing the fundamental story parts, sequencing the events in the story, using re-reading as a clarifying strategy and making connections between what they have read and their own experiences.  For developing readers - those children who have already grasped most of the basic ideas about reading - using one or two of these simple reminders as they read their way through interesting books each day will certainly boost their confidence and encourage them to keep trying as they gradually become increasingly proficient readers. A few other strategies that will help them continue to develop as readers are described in this second part of the home reading blog series focused on developing readers. 

Using Decoding Clues for Challenging Words

In part one of this developing readers' blog series, decoding support was focused on recognizing rhyming words, onsets and endings of words to develop an individualized set of sight words that would carry meaning for the reader. Part two of this blog series recognizes that as developing readers become increasingly adept at reading, the stories and books they choose to read will also become more complex, with words that are more challenging to decode and understand. 

Identifying two and three consonant blends (eg. 'pl', 'tr', 'str') is an additional decoding tool children might use when making sense of a word in a text, and it is a natural extension of looking at beginning and ending sounds, especially since developing readers may find three-consonant onsets to be a bit confusing when they initially bump into them on the page. 

Looking for 'small words in bigger words' (eg. finding words like 'ant' or 'act' in a sentence that says 'the house was distant and he was distracted by the rain'). Because the English language has so many compound words, such as 'sunflower, daydream, dragonfly, blueberry', this is also a common strategy for children to use successfully when they notice a challenging word in a text. 

Understanding the purpose of word endings such as 'ing' or 'ed' will help young readers begin to make greater sense of text having a 'time frame' as a story telling technique, as will understanding the purpose of onsets such as 'mis', 'dis' or 're' at the beginning of words. These are more sophisticated decoding strategies developing readers will begin to use as their continually advancing proficiency propels them into reading books with more elaborate text. 

Expanding Vocabulary

Developing readers are also expanding their vocabulary as they progress in both decoding and deriving meaning from texts.  As they begin to make connections between ideas and concepts, they are also making connections between words and how meanings are connected. For example, a child might quickly recognize words such as 'cat', 'tiger', 'lion', 'kit', etc. and begin to link the meanings of these words as being part of a 'cat' family. They are able to make sense of words such as 'cub' or 'lioness' or 'cat door' as a result of having already developed a fundamental basic vocabulary.  As they understand bears need a 'den', so will they discern a what a cougar's 'lair' is when they encounter it in a text. 

Developing readers will also begin to make sense of root words, such as 'add', when they encounter more complex words such as 'addition', 'additionally', 'addend' or 'additive'. Root words might have meaning, although not necessarily.  Base words, however, have meaning on their own - such as 'paint' in a word such as 'repainted'. As children acquire familiarity with different kinds of words, they also develop awareness of both the predictable and unpredictable patterns words follow as they morph and change in text. For example, if a child recognizes the word 'instruct', they are like to be able to figure out words such as 'instructor', 'instruction', 'instructing', etc.

Multiple Meanings of Words

Sometimes, children read a word and think they also have the meaning but the word actually contains multiple meanings in English. For example, a reader who understands that a 'field' can mean anything from a place where wheat is grown to a place where soccer is played, or a collection of athletes being considered for selection to a particular team, will be able to make sense of text only when they can identify which meaning the word has for that particular story. Being aware there is the possibility of a different meaning is essential to ensure developing readers are actually making sense of text appropriately.

Homonyms, synonyms and antonyms all have the potential to confuse young readers. Whether the queen is enjoying a 'reign', 'rein' or 'rain' in a particular story can have a significant impact on the meaning of a story, as can understanding that a 'den' and a 'lair' are similar rather than opposite in meaning. These are intricate understandings of English that are best understood in the moment of reading and are key clues to meaning offered during home reading experiences that have the potential to really enhance meaning for students and prevent the need to 'unlearn' a misunderstanding of vocabulary later on.

Using Context Clues

Using context clues to discern meaning from text occurs when a developing reader understands the meaning of an unfamiliar word based on the clues present before and after this new word in the sentence or paragraph. For example, in the text 'He wasn't as good a hockey player as his friend, Joe, nor as terrible as the newest child on the team, Mark.  At best, Fred was a mediocre hockey player.', a developing reader might not be able to identify the word 'mediocre' but would most likely understand the meaning of the word.  Similarly, developing readers would most likely make sense of words such as 'prey' or 'habitat' or 'predator' within the context of the words they already know in a text about animals. As parents support their children with home reading, checking to confirm a child understands text through the use of context clues is an easy and fun way to figure out what is happening in a story.  

Recognizing Punctuation as a Meaning-Making Strategy

Punctuation often helps us with meaning, particularly when it is used deliberately, such as a sentence that states: Oh!! She was frozen to the spot - what was in the shadows??  The use of exclamation marks and double question marks indicates strong emotion, lending clues to meaning for the reader. Quotation marks also bring clues for meaning making, indicating speakers or thoughts as they are encountering the events in a particular story. Authors use punctuation liberally as a meaning-making strategy in simpler texts for developing readers; when parents support their children by encouraging them to use punctuation as way to make sense of text, they are encouraging the use of divergent reading strategies as well as motivating readers to look beyond the obvious - a way to draw readers unexpectedly into the text.

Text Structures

Stories in fiction texts, as well non-fiction books, use familiar structures to help students make sense of longer texts. These include chapters, headings, sub-headings of course, but also how text is arranged. Text structures such as this might include cause and effect, circle, chronological, 3-events or 2-character stories, first-then-next or before and after sequences. These are all strategies for arranging text in familiar yet interesting formats developing readers can predict and affirm as they make sense of new words and ideas.

Text Features

Features in story books come in many formats that developing readers might find helpful to making sense of text. Developing readers who begin to identify captions, text boxes, headings, charts, graphs, maps, pictographs, etc will also begin to understand information and details can be presented in multiple ways and that text features hold meaning as much as text on a page does when conveying information. Understanding the purposes of text features will help developing readers unpack meaning and make connections as they engage with increasingly complex words, sentences and paragraphs in texts they encounter during home reading experiences. 

Asking Questions

Perhaps the easiest strategy for helping developing readers make sense of text is the use of 'questions'. Sometimes those questions come from the adults engaged in the home reading experience, while others come naturally from the developing reader as they try to make sense of text on their own.  It is unfortunate, sometimes, when readers do not 'get it' from the beginning that they are reading for meaning all the time and they focus on decoding or knowing sight words without being simultaneously attentive to the meaning of the text. As a parent reading at home with a child, the famous '5W, 1H' strategy for asking questions will work quite effectively; my particular favourite strategy is to keep asking 'why?' with a developing reader until they actually understand they are asking questions of the text in an effort to make sense! Encouraging broad-based questions from the children is always an outstanding strategy for making sense of text.

The Power of Retell and Summary

As children end with a text, encouraging them to retell with questions is a strong and effective strategy for figuring out what meaning they actually elicited from the text. Learning to retell with the '5W1H' strategy is a tried and true approach for sure; students will sometimes offer every detail they read as evidence of reading. Summarizing is a skill that can be taught and is somewhat easier for students; pulling out the main facts in the story or a nonfiction text is a challenging task not quickly mastered without repeated practice. As a parent reading at home with a developmental reader, these are repetitive tasks that don't seem repetitive because the texts used at home can be varied easily to accommodate any interest. As the texts change, the focus on strategies does not seem repetitive to the developmental reader eagerly reading a wide variety of texts.

This two-part blog entry focused on developmental readers has included 14 particular strategies for parents to use as they support and encourage their children through their learning-to-read experiences. It is critically important, in my opinion, to remember that learning to read is not an easy task - it is a definitive journey with many halts and pauses as well as grand leaps ahead for the child engaged in the learning to read process. Reading skills and strategies continue to expand and develop in complexity as children grow and change as readers, continually expanding their repertoire of strategies for making sense of texts. As the home reading parent or partner, this is a lovely way to stay connected to children through the early years of learning and establish a love of reading together through these formative stages. 

Lorraine Kinsman, Principal 
Eric Harvie School