Joyful Teaching

  • Grades: 1–2, 3–5, 6–8

After one of my staff development workshops, I found myself alone in a large boardroom with my messy pile of overhead transparencies, dozens of student samples, DVDs, and my favorite children's books scattered everywhere. Just minutes before, the teachers rushed off to their classrooms to attack mile-long to-do lists in preparation for their new students who would arrive in just two more days. We had enjoyed a great day with three staffs joined together for a workshop on comprehension strategies and lots of delicious food. (Teachers love to graze and eat on staff development days!) As I gathered up leftover chocolate kisses and empty wrappers from the tables, I felt satisfied with our time together and looked forward to teaching at their schools in the coming months. At the same time, I knew the teachers felt stressed with all the pressure to meet standards, bring up scores, and help a population that often struggles below grade level.

An administrator slipped back into the room for just a moment to share her wisdom. "You know what is missing from classrooms today?" she quizzed. "Everywhere I go I see a desperate lack of joy. With all the pressure from high-stakes testing, we've squeezed the fun out of teaching and learning for both kids and teachers. People need to not be so serious. These are children." She added that she thought my lessons provided teachers with a refreshing opportunity to be joyful again, promoting deeper thinking and improving comprehension. Interactive lessons provide teachers and students avenues for joy by allowing them to respond to quality literature with a full range of emotions.

Then off she dashed to an important meeting, leaving me alone again in the echoing hall. I thought about her insightful comment in that moment of solitude. She was right. I'd noticed over the past five years a dramatic decrease in joyful learning and teaching. My mission is not only to show teachers how to improve and deepen comprehension for all students, but also to help teachers rediscover the joy and fun of teaching.

Why We Need Engaging Lessons and Scaffolded Instruction in Comprehension

Let's face it. Sometimes it feels as though we are entertaining as much as teaching this generation of students. Too many of them are glued to television, computer, and game screens for more hours than we wish to know about. It is no wonder it feels so difficult to maintain their attention for longer periods of time. We need to engage students in exciting comprehension lessons that will capture their attention, make them think, improve their comprehension, and keep them motivated to read more.

In this book you will find a wealth of exciting classroom-tested lessons that will aid you in teaching the comprehension strategies you already teach: connect, predict/infer, question, summarize, monitor/clarify, and evaluate through a variety of modalities. Interactive think-alouds engage students during the modeling phase of the lesson with gestures to cue the strategies and clever characters and metaphors that students can relate to the strategies. In addition, mentor texts become familiar friends that anchor students' thinking about the strategies. When students practice the strategies in teams, they use strategy starters such as "I think I will learn" for predicting with nonfiction as they select words from the text and record predictions on a group chart. On their own, students use what they've learned in the lesson to apply the strategies as they read to understand the text better.

As P. David Pearson once put it, "Scaffolding is the heart and the art of teaching" (1992, p. 145-199). Scaffolding means providing our students with just the right amount of support in the form of more examples and meaningful opportunities to practice independently and with peers. With the daily challenges we face as teachers, together with the massive amount of print students encounter, and the demand for higher test scores, the need for quality scaffolded instruction in comprehension is great.

As a national staff developer and literacy coach, I spend about 25-30 hours every month teaching students in grades K-6 and occasionally in grades 7-8 as well. Most of the schools I serve are program improvement buildings and Title I schools that are filled with English learners. Many of these schools are located in high-poverty areas. The students and teachers alike are under extreme pressure to raise their test scores. Even in the upper-middle-class schools where I coach, teachers feel the heat and expectations for improved performance. Nobody in schools today escapes this unfortunate reality. In all of these different schools where I demonstrate, teach, and coach every week, I learn along with the teachers and students what works best and what doesn't. It is a humbling challenge to say the least. Comprehension is always the number-one concern of the teachers.

Teachers today can't seem to gather enough comprehension ideas to meet the demands of the testing and the standards. The growing interest in comprehension stems in part from the National Reading Panel (2000a) guidelines that require every reading program to include explicit instruction in comprehension along with phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, and vocabulary. The interest in comprehension is greater than ever and growing.

The theme I've chosen for this book is active engagement in comprehension lessons. I began to notice that after demo lessons, when I ask teachers to tell me what they notice about the lessons, the first comment is always, "The students were engaged. They were with you the entire time." So I decided to research and write about the most engaging and creative ways to teach comprehension to our students. The best part about teaching this way is that the students end up doing the work of learning and your job of teaching is much easier! Picture students making colorful chains to represent their connections. Or imagine students role playing story characters as they infer feelings. Or how about teams of students working together to use the sentence frame, "I can tell that . . ." as they read, record, and discuss their inferences in a social studies text. In these lessons, students talk, students collaborate, and they are supported as they think deeply about their comprehension.

You can use any of the tools in this book with lessons you already have in your own repertoire of exciting lessons designed to increase your students' learning engagement. For example, you might have a really great lesson on predicting from another book or workshop. You read this book and decide to add drama to the lesson. It is up to you to adapt the tools such as drama, music, gestures, and the metaphors of characters to your own teaching style. I wrote this book for teachers like you who want to achieve results by engaging students more effectively.

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