Someone at a party introduces you to your mother’s only sister’s husband’s sister-in-law. He has no brothers. What do you call this lady?
That’s the question that greets Arbor Hills students walking into Jamie Holley’s fourth period Reading 7 class. It’s a bell ringer that gives the students something to focus on and be entertained by as they set up for class, and it works remarkably well. I find myself focused in the time it takes me to work out the problem. Jamie’s students glance at the problem on the SmartBoard as they gather their materials and ready themselves for the lesson.
Today, Jamie is moving students from that little bell ringer problem to the exploration of problem/solution as a mode of writing and discussion. Having jumped enthusiastically into Achieve3000 last year during its piloting at Arbor Hills, Jamie is an expert at using its data to understand the needs of her students. In this case, she has seen that they do not perform well when tasked with understanding problem/solution writings. The data has driven her to develop a small project on the thinking mode, relying on material from Achieve to form the basis. That material, however, does not dominate the assignment. Jamie’s expert teaching does.
The class starts as many do these days. Students see a Google Slides presentation on the board, and they follow along through simultaneous access on their Chromebooks. Students sit in partnerships as they follow along, and they soon rely on those partners for a warm-up activity. The warm-up requires them to read a short paragraph describing a problem with eel populations. The partners work together to answer some simple problem/solution questions, such as signal words and responsible parties. Student collaboration gets going, and Jamie de-briefs their work after a few minutes.
The next stage brings Achieve into the equation, but in a way that truly unlocks the resource’s potential. Partnerships are assigned one of two articles: “No Land? No Problem!” or “No Water? No Problem!” The students read the article to each other aloud, trading off paragraph to paragraph. We all know that these readings are leveled, but Jamie has partnered students according to reading proficiency, ensuring that they are reading identical or nearly-identical articles to each other. As they read, students use the “Setting the Purpose” annotation blanks offered in Achieve (referred to in class as the “circle things”) to note the problem and solution in each article. Finally, they answer the activity questions. This process of partnered reading leads to an environment of high productivity and low stress. Students gain strength from the partnered collaboration, but never draw off task in any significant way. Jamie’s lack of controlling direction throughout the process demonstrates her skill in setting the tone in her classroom.
The next stage of the process further capitalizes on collaboration. Partnerships that have explored the “No Land?” article “teach” it to the “No Water?” group, and then that group teaches the first their article. All along, Jamie’s direction focuses students on key concepts in text structure, such as signal words and paragraph structure. Throughout this step, and all others, Jamie reassures students that they can master the concepts and reminds them that “It’s okay to be confused.”
After this engaging and collaborative use of Achieve to explore the text structure, Jamie pushes her seventh graders one step further. She asks them to conduct informal research on problems affecting the Sylvania community for a short report. This work is still partnered as students read about algae blooms or drug abuse. They’re building not simply to a report, but to a problem/solution discussion that will be recorded through MoveNote and shared with fellow students. This opportunity excites students, and on the day of the recording, the time flies as students spend 100% time on task excitedly developing their newscast-style discussion of a community problem and their proposed solution.
Two of Jamie’s students, Lexus and Salma, decided to explore the puppy mill problem affecting the community through the store at the Franklin Park Mall. The girls enjoyed the assignment, stating that they “liked picking the problem.” And, “It was fun. We got to work in partners.” The girls understand the puppy mill problem, and their solution focuses on the buyer. They suggest that if you’re looking for a puppy, “You can adopt from a trusted owner or a shelter that you trust.” When asked why they focused their solution on the buyer, rather than the seller, they respond, ”The articles did not talk much about the stores,” showing how their work has depended on the research they read. It demonstrates the success of the reading instruction.
Achieve3000 has been established to run automatically. Students could plug into the system and work independently on developing reading skills. Unfortunately, that will not work. Isolating students does not support them in their learning, and using Achieve to push that isolation will not lead to success. Jamie knows that and knows how to avoid the problem. Her project relies on the differentiation power of Achieve, but never once do students find themselves alone in the system. They use it as an organic part of a collaborative, authentic, and engaging exploration of problems and their solutions. These seventh graders will learn and grow through this mode of instruction to become the problem solvers of tomorrow, thanks to Jamie.