Thoughts on Differentiation

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I recently read the article of John Kenny about differentiation and the article of Christina Milos about educational myths. I’d like to say that I admire these educators as they put forth their questions and critical analyses (which I believe are valid) out there. I share the same view with them: ask and explore with an open-mind until it totally makes sense.  This is what a real discourse is, and this is how we evolve. In this article, I will share my thoughts on differentiation.

Background: I’m Asian and Asia is very communal. We grow up knowing that we are indeed part of a community, starting with our big families. Having to be a part of a communal society also implies that we live up to the standards of our community- whatever that means, whatever it takes. The society does not adjust to us, we adjust to it and I never saw this as something necessarily bad, only different from the Western social beliefs and structures.

During my early teaching years, I had many trainings that were very ‘western’ in nature, including personalized learning and differentiation. They are amazing and learning about them opened me to a whole new universe. But you could imagine how challenging it was to absorb these for us, granted that our context is quite different. I had many questions, but at that time I knew I just had to learn more to reach clarity. So like any passionate teacher, I strove to learn more about them, I implemented them in the classroom, adapted them in our context, and observed results and impact.

The differentation idea: The idea behind differentiation is noble and sound. Everyone is unique, we could all learn differently, we could all learn best in different ways, we could show our understanding in different ways.  It’s nothing new, though. Back in school, I knew I had to strategize and do things that work for me to get through Maths. I drew all my solutions, but just the same, I had to calculate to get to the answers. I just had to draw first. I drew my ideas before I wrote my papers, but just the same, I needed insightful content and proper grammar.  I just had to draw first.  It’s nothing new, only that in Asia, or specifically in my school, the conviction to ‘differentiate’ came within me, and not from my teachers. We the students needed to adjust to the same teachers, lessons, tasks and exams…but we all, more or less, did something different to enjoy and survive school.

I knew that we are all smart and special. But I also knew that some are smarter than me and that I could be smarter than some- I didn’t have any problems with this (I’m not sure about my parents). But I think many people do because they want the same results and progress from children who have different abilities.

Like as if when a student fails to get good marks in Maths, I didn’t differentiate enough in class and that’s why my student failed. And this is one notion or implication of differentiation that bothered me: that we differentiate so we could help our students achieve the same results as others. This notion put pressure on my back and kept me low for some years. But back then, I didn’t feel the need to question.  I just felt that I just needed to learn more and improve my ‘views’ and practice, because there’s always that space for self-awareness and growth.

The learners: In my years of teaching, I’ve seen how differentiation improves motivation for learning, how it makes learning fun, and how it develops my students’ healthy self-esteem. Students realize more about their strengths and areas for improvement. However, I’ve also seen students compromise their strengths in order to get ‘easier tasks’ and to spend more time with me (because the students see that I spend more instruction time with the ‘less able’ kids). Similarly, I’ve seen how some of the ‘less able’ kids take advantage of their own challenges, to get ‘easier’ content, process and products.  But these things- students comparing work and effort and classroom competition- are easy to handle if you have a good relationship with your students, and if you do constant pep talk.

But the thing that really bothered me the most about differentiation is that, as much as we are able to enhance our students’ strengths through it, it seems that we have also become more forgiving and lenient of our students’ weaknesses- and this seems to be an accepted practice in education. Kenny verbalised some of my ideas in his article, paragraphs 4 and 5.

The teachers: I’ve seen how differentiation makes teachers feel more fulfilled as they could see better progress from their students. I’ve seen how it forces teachers to develop their skills and over all mindset about teaching (in a positive way) and about the nature of learning. But yes, I’ve also seen how difficult and taxing it could be. We could differentiate through many ways, like through content, process and product, but that only means that we need to differentiate engagements, mini-lessons, learning outcomes, assessment tools and strategies, and over all standards. This is fine, of course, but it is a lot of work. I’ve seen teachers burnt-out of differentiating, and teachers pressured to do whatever magic it takes so students with ‘low abilities’ can produce ‘good’ results like the others. I’ve seen teachers get confuse because the practices of grade level expectations and standardized tests don’t seem to match the noble ideas of differentiation.  I’ve experienced all these challenges, too.  And there on-going doubts; only now I know I have the capacity to critique and ask questions, because I am self-aware and this is how I grow.

My thoughts today: Maybe if my teachers back in school knew how to differentiate, I could be a smarter person today. But I guess I turned out just fine. In fact, I knew from a young age that the world doesn’t revolve around me, and I had to actually do something and work hard to achieve good results- whatever my teachers threw at me. And if I don’t get good results, I just have to try harder, or else I will be grounded forever. Even if we are now in the 21st century where we continue to experience massive shifts and changes in education, somehow my schooling in the past continues to remind me of the essentials.

My point is, if we do not understand the wisdom and process behind differentiation, we miss teaching grit and resilience in our class, which research suggests are the very important traits we need today in order to succeed (Duckworth 2013). And if we fail to hone these traits, we also seem to fail to hit the point of differentiating, which is to help students achieve personal success.

We shouldn’t just differentiate because of what students can and can’t do. We differentiate so student can learn how to help themselves to overcome their weaknesses and fears. We differentiate to teach them that setting and achieving personal goals matter a lot– sometimes more than the grade level and societal standards.  Giving realistic standards to students should not equate to lowering standards. And differentiating doesn’t mean that students can’t or shouldn’t learn and do what the others are learning and doing.

If the ‘one-size fits all’ instruction does not work, then one way of differentiating would also not work. There is so much exploring to do when we talk about differentiation, and we should continue to ask questions, to examine this, to suggest best pratices considering different contexts, and to analyze why it works and why it doesn’t. Clearly I have to learn more about this, but one thing I know for sure- teacher trainings about differentiation shouldn’t box it into ability groupings.

My take on differentiation now (I’m sure this could further evolve later) is that it is not just a type of strategy or education that comes from the teacher, but an effort coming from the students and the entire learning community.  Let’s teach the students how to differentiate for themselves so they can learn how to adapt; instead of just the teachers adapting to the students’ needs.

Let’s collaborate realistic goals with our students and make concrete plans on how to reach them.

Let’s not just give some of our students the ‘easy tasks’, but let’s give all of them many opportunities to develop strategies.  So they can choose the best tool to help them tackle difficult situations. Explicitly teach study skills.

Let’s teach using concepts and use them wisely in class, so students can freely utilize their knowledge, different skills and talents when developing an understanding.

Let’s know our students well so we can make smarter and more targeted lesson plans and assessments- by anticipating different needs, giving provisions for diversity, giving spot on resources  to those who struggle and to those who don’t.

Together with our students, let’s collaborate on concrete choices with clear expectations (rather than ‘do whatever you’re strong at’ tasks and assessment), so we can make sure that the students are showing the targetted outcomes and understanding clearly.

Then feedback, feedback, feedback.  Let’s give them individual feedback and how their effort help achieve their goals.

And finally, let’s keep on discussing about how we can show grit, hard work, perseverance, fairness and success in and outside the classroom, so that our students (and parents) understand differentiation does not necessarily mean arriving at the same results.

Reference:

Grit:  The power of passion and perseverance by Angela Lee Duckworth:  https://www.ted.com/talks/angela_lee_duckworth_grit_the_power_of_passion_and_perseverance

Still Not Convinced About Differentiation by John Kenny: https://johnkennyweb.wordpress.com/2017/07/17/still-not-convinced-about-differentiation/

Myths in Education, or How Bad Teaching is Enourcaged by Cristina Milos: https://momentssnippetsspirals.wordpress.com/2016/02/22/myths-in-education-or-how-bad-teaching-is-encouraged/

Myth-Busing Differentiated Instruction: 3 Myths and 3 Truths by John McCarthy: https://www.edutopia.org/blog/differentiated-instruction-myths-and-truths-john-mccarthy

What Differentiated Instruction Is-And Is Not by TeachThough Staff: http://www.teachthought.com/pedagogy/the-definition-of-differentiated-instruction/

 

Students seated in a circle- what does it really mean?

Inquiry is collaborative/cooperative and we are proud of it.   They say ‘traditional’ schools don’t really practice cooperative learning, but competitive learning (I am not a fan of comparing schools, practices and philosophies but let me just quote to make a point).  At times, though, new students from trad schools work more collaboratively than other old-timer PYP students.  The fact is we trad students (yes I’m a product of a traditional convent school) are trained to work independently; consequences are more real to us as they are so lethal that we do what we have to do, whether tomorrow is the apocalypse or just another boring day; whether or not we understand what we are doing (and we do try our best to understand in order to avoid the lethal consequences).  I argue that learning to how work independently leads to a more successful collaboration- I guess trad schools are not that bad.  Depending on what the purpose of the group engagement, students must get that productive time to think, work and reflect independently then go for a structured group work kids would enjoy or learn from.  I think the biggest mistakes about collaborative learning are doing group work for the sake of doing it and assuming collaborative learning is happening just because the students are seated in a circle!

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What is cooperative learning?

Cooperative learning is not just group work nor team building activities.  It involves high quality of interaction, interdependence, individual accountability, collaborative skills and group processing.

“Face-to-face interaction is a bit counter-intuitive because it doesn’t necessarily mean face-to-face as in ‘in-person’. It actually just refers to direct interaction. So, it can be literally face-to-face, or it could be over the phone, on chat, via Skype, through email, etc. It’s just referring to the fact that group members have to actually interact in order to cooperate.  The second element is positive interdependence, which means that the group members rely on each other and can only succeed together. This goes hand-in-hand with the third element, which is individual accountability. As an interdependent group, each individual is responsible for his or her own work and can be held accountable for that work.  The fourth element of cooperative learning is collaborative skills. The group members must be able to work together, but the ability to do so doesn’t always come naturally; sometimes these skills need to be taught. And the final element is group processing, which refers to the fact that the group needs to monitor itself to ensure that the group, as a whole, is working together effectively.”  – Erin Long-Crowell

The ‘smart’ ones get frustrated because they do all the work then we tell them that they have to be more tolerant and open-minded.  Some students feel discouraged because the group simply won’t trust them do anything- so that they won’t ruin the work!  Then we tell them that they have to be more responsible and committed.  AND/OR the ‘smart’ ones dominate and develop more confidence and the ‘slower’ ones become chronic social loafers.   It’s sad, but I think every teacher who facilitated group work has observed these things happening.  And sometimes we accept it because kids are kids and they fight all the time, but it’s not okay.  Students have to understand that it’s not okay to be in a group and not do anything.  And that it is unfair for one student to just hog all the work.  Another thing- a mere discussion on ‘what makes a good discussion’ is a good start, but doesn’t guarantee a cooperative discussion.  Students need to have opportunities to independently organize their thoughts in order to contribute to a discussion.  There’s definitely a lot more to group work than just sitting with your group mates.

Aside from developing collaborative skills, cooperative learning emphasizes interdependence and individual accountability. We ‘prove’ that  individual accountability is happening because student have agreed on ‘group roles’ in their planners.  But are they skilled and willing enough to fulfill the roles?  Yes we discuss expectations, rubric or checklist developed with the students, yes they understand the purpose of working in groups, but are they skilled and determined to achieve the goal? Students should be given the support, achieve skills to learn how to work independently and do his/her part.  This way, they can count on themselves and on each other.  Then we can watch the quality of relationship, group dynamics and work grow.  Then we can watch them work happier within a group.  Then we can watch them…learn.  I guess the saying ‘you can’t help others if you can’t help yourself‘ is the gist of this article.

Players who know how to play football make a football team.  They may play differently, some better than the others, but they do know how to play football, they want to and they’re learning to.  However, the success of a football team lies on the fact that each plays better with another.  Likewise, let’s help our students become good team players by providing a good balance of quality independent and group tasks in order to make real collaboration happen.

 

 

Sources:

http://education-portal.com/academy/lesson/cooperative-and-collaborative-learning-in-the-classroom.html#lesson

http://asma-strivingforsuccess.blogspot.in/2008/12/15-common-mistakes-in-using-cooperative.html

Math and Stories

We recently finished our Language Unit on Stories so my partner and I thought that it will be interesting to integrate stories with our Maths unit on Division.  We thought of tuning in our students into word problems by asking them to write simple division stories (with clues).  We wanted to see the language they’ll use, their understanding of the concept and we wanted to see how they’ll strategize and translate the concept into word problems or stories.  I’ve known about this engagement before, but this is the first time I’m tried it out.

This simple engagement brought about so much more than I expected.  I was amazed to witness how this engagement encouraged creativity and other skills like resolving conflict.  Though they were all given same clues (winning 175 tickets) yet they all came up with different stories that reflected how they handle problems.   Their stories also reflected how they see the world, their likes and dislikes.

This was something I and the kids truly enjoyed.  It inspired me to be more creative in planning Maths engagements, to give more open-ended tasks and to never underestimate what the kids can come up with!

(Stories unedited)

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“One day four children named Alisha, Shub, Geronimo and Mudra went to the amusement park.  In the bowling game, they earned 175 tickets.  In the mean time, Mudra started to fight and then everbody started because they didn’t get equal tickets.  When they were fighting Geronimo got an idea that they should divide the tickets.  They divided 175÷4.  They got the quotient 43.  They remainder they got was 3.  Each got 43 but they got three extra and there were 4 kids.  So they teared the tickets and lived happily ever. The end”  –  Shub and Alisha

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“One day, Malvika, Alisha and Vedangi went to the amusement partk just for fun.  First they played the bowling game and won 175 tickets but they did not know how to divide the tickets.  After awhile, we saw Ms. Katrina teaching Rishi division, so we three went there and asked Ms. Katrina to explain us division too.  Ms. Katrina said, “In division we have to make groups of equal amount and it is also called as repeated subtraction.”  Vedangi asked Ms. Katrina, “Ma’m how to divide amongst us?”  So, Ms. Katrina took out a paper and pens from her bag and solved the problem on the paper and showed us how to divide. So last only 1 ticket left so Malvika said now who can get the last ticket?  We all started thinking who can get the last ticket so Alisha said “Maybe we can give to Rishi.”  – Vedangi and Malavika

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“One day Tanav and Rishi decided to go to Karla Phoenix Market city, Timezone.  We called Vir, Chahit and JK with us to Timezone.  All of us won a lot of tickets.  When they were about to go and take a gift, they started to fight and all of them were telling, ‘This is mine!” We were keep on fighting.  Between our fight Tanav got an idea of dividing the tickets amongst us.  175 ÷ 5=35.  All of us got equal tickets and each of us got 35 tickets.  All of us played bowling.  We wen to the gift counter and bought our gifts.  We all went to our homes.  We played with our gifts.  We never fought again and if this situation occurs again then we will use division.  Thank you for listening to our story. ” –Tanav and Rishi

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“Me and my three friends went to the bowling alley in the amusement park and earned 175 tickets.  But we were fighting for the three tickets left after distributing.  Tanav said that the leader gets the remaining tickets, but Ramu didn’t agree.  Ramu advised that they should use the three tickets for everybody’s like on a game that costs 3 tickets they can buy it and all the four will own the game.”  –Devajna and Arnav

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“Derek, Arjun, Shivank and Vir went to the amusement park and earned 175 tickets in the bowling game.  The problem was that they had to divide the tickets equally among themselves.  They tried many ways to divide equally but they could not.  To find out how many tickets each person needs they have to divide 175 with 4.  Derek told Arjun, Shivank and Vir that to find out how many tickets, you have to use a technique called long division.  Arjun asked Derek how long division is done.  Derek said that he does not know long division but he can ask someone.  They saw a man and they asked him “What is 175÷4.  “He said 43.”  Then they thanked him and divided the tickets but 3 were left so they gave them to the man who helped them.” –  Shivank and Arjun

Are you a “Jugaad” in the Classroom?

I’m currently reading a book called Jugaad Innovation, authored by Radjou, Prabhu and Ahuja.  “Jugaad” in Hindi means ingenious solutions to problems or turn adversity into opportunities.  The six guiding principles behind the Jugaad Innovation are a)  seek opportunity in adversity, b)  do more with less, c)  Think and act flexible, d)  Keep it simple, e) Include the margin, f)  Follow your heart.  I’ve seen different jugaad-in-action classrooms and schools all over the world- from the biggest things like having a non-traditional approach to education and starting an education revolution, to the little things like using old mineral water bottles as pencil holders.     Big or small, they equally inspire me to be a classroom innovator.

As I read through the different stories of individuals and companies who succeeded through innovation, this line made an impact on me:

“When you listen to your customers, you merely react to needs; when you empathize with customers, you anticipate their needs; but when you truly love your customers, you surprise them by introducing them to products they can’t even fathom.”–  Mauro Porcini, 3M Head of Global Strategic Design

This made me ask:

  • How often do we surprise our students?
  • What do we do to make our students go ‘wow’?
  • What something new do we do in the classroom?
  • How often do we do something new in the class?
  • How is innovation celebrated in our class?
  • Are there any new ideas we are willing to fight for?
  • What ideas do we have that seem outrageous but are helpful?
  • Have you done anything risky for the betterment of the students?
  • Do we follow our hearts in the classroom?
  • How else do we show our love for our students?

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I think we educators should consider ourselves not only as people who facilitate the class, but as artists who are capable of designing and engineering to solve problems, to do something for the marginalized, and to do something…inspiring– not only for our students, but for everyone else who cares.

Maybe the true signs of love for students are not just measured by how much we listen and feel for them.  Love for students is also measured by how we apply creativity in the classroom- to think out of the box and go out of our comfort zone for solutions that will address the issues in the classroom despite limitations, risks and personal struggles.

Are you a ‘jugaad’ in the classroom?

First Rule of the Year: Let go.

I am more than thankful for my almost 2 years of managing my own place and life in India as I learned that what I own, I am responsible for. I am thankful for the previous years of working hard to fix and “beautify” the classroom as I learned that having a beautiful classroom prepared by the teacher is neither a sign of preparedness nor high quality of teaching.  I am thankful for my coordinator who gave me the opportunity to think, despite my lack of confidence, and gave me the freedom in the classroom, for I learned from my mistakes, and how to be independent, self-reliant, curious, hungry and creative. I am thankful for the years of struggles and confusion with teaching as I learned that with adversity, time, perseverance, resilience and prayers I will figure things out.

I am thankful for all these learnings because they all led me to my first rule of teaching for this year:  let go.

For the first time in my 5 years of teaching, I have decided not to fix the classroom and left it as how it was before I went home for the summer break.  I figured that it is time for me to let the students take ownership of their classroom and most importantly, their learning.  Little things, like letting them decide how the classroom should look like, what corners should we have, where they should be and how our routines are, already made an impact to my students and to me as well.    It’s not only that I felt effortless fixing the classroom or thinking about our routine and all.  It was more   than that.  For the first time in my 5 years of teaching, I felt that I was teaching. I felt I was giving them the little lessons that matter. For the first time, I feel that we all started the year right.

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It WASN’T THAT EASY watching them do the classroom magic.  Along the way, I felt the tensions within me as there were things that I didn’t really agree with or things that I found ‘wrong’ with their decisions.  However, I continuously reminded myself to let go and just let them create their own learning and fun space.  After all, it is not my class alone, it is all ours. I believe that one big aspect that supports inquiry in the classroom is having a ‘safe’ and ‘secure’ environment, where the members show trust, respect, tolerance and empathy toward each other.  This is not just a professional goal that I have, but a goal that I share with my students. I realize that when we share the same goals and aspirations with our class, we get to have a more meaningful relationship and learning. We learn how to dream big together.  We learn how to work as a unit.

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Letting go doesn’t only mean letting them be.  Letting go means putting aside your own intentions and sharing the space, time, emotion and learning that you haven’t shared before. And most of all, letting go means accepting each other, sharing the same freedom and responsibilities….both with the little things and the big things.

Read aloud with a Twist!

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Last March 6, we celebrated the World’s Read Aloud Day with a twist!  My class celebrated it by reading aloud the Indian folktale “How the Summer Queen Came to Kashmir” to a Grade 4 class from an international school in Hong Kong.  The read aloud was done through Skype.  We thought that by reading aloud the said tale, it will help students from Hong Kong know more about the rich culture and places of India.  The other class read aloud poems from the book called Joyful Noise by Paul Fleischman.  We had a great time listening to the poems as they read it creatively.

It is the first time that my class had this engagement.  There were challenges like communication, arranging the schedule and the quality of the internet connection.  In the actual read aloud, it was hard to hear and understand each other, but somehow we got through the event smoothly.  Everyone seemed to enjoy, especially the part when my students and the other class were given the opportunity to say hi to each other.  I think in away, my class was amazed seeing other kids from another part of the world.

What I love the most about the engagement is that first of all, it promoted global mindedness by taking part on an event that is celebrated worldwide.  Tanja Galleti, a primary Librarian from an international school in Hong Kong, just twitted about the event.  I replied back as I was interested with it.  She had this wonderful idea of reading aloud through Skype, and I thought that was a good opportunity for my class.  Without her help and initiative, this event would have not been possible.  She was the one who arranged the schedule between me and Andrea Onken, the Grade 4 teacher from Hong Kong, despite her busy schedule.  Of course, much thanks to Andrea as well, as she was also open to do the read aloud with my class.  With this simple interactive activity, we know that we have encouraged reading around the world.

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Secondly, I like that we showed that education is border-less.  In that simple 30 minutes read aloud from both classes, my class learned how to observe and listen, how to model certain behaviour from other students from a different country, and how to use technology to help us learn.  That simple 30 minutes was an opportunity for my students to be communicators, to be open-minded, and a chance to develop self-management skills.  That simple 30 minutes gave us the opportunity to have new friends.

Thirdly, I like how the three of us- Tanja, Andrea and I- were all strangers to each other, yet are united by the same aim and love for collaboration, technology and a global approach to learning.  I don’t know them personally, and I’ve never even worked with them before, but this certainly showed that when there is a goal, openness and some sense of familiarity, strangers can be great company.  Thank you Tanja, Andrea and your wonderful students.  More and more educators are collaborating on-line and I believe that this is one of the best practices a teacher could ever take advantage of.  So thank you for all the selfless teachers out there who keep on sharing and sharing and sharing!  It’s a small world after all, and there is this simple girl in India who highly appreciates you all.

Like what I said, simple as the engagement may be, it brought things that are essential to teaching and learning.  Simple effort like this gives an opportunity for us and our students to be internationally minded.  I’m definitely looking forward to doing this again.

What Charlotte Taught Us: On Reading, Strategies and IB Learner Profile & Attitudes

At last! After 2 months, we have finished our adventure with Charlotte, Wilbur and the rest of the barn.  As this was our first time to run the Literature Circle, I didn’t really expect much from the students.  Feedback time and I, again, was surprised by my young readers.

My grade 4 shared that the Literature Circle helped them to gain friends and to be open-minded to what others have to share.  They learned how to encourage themselves and each other.  They said that to make our discussions better, the class should show more cooperation, open-mindedness and independence. They added that it helped them be more enthusiastic and committed to reading.

What we have learned from the book:  Love, friendship and so much more!

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“That even if you’re very small like a spider or an ant, you can save someone’s life…”

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“I understand that in life anything can happen…like a spider and a pig can be friends…so even a human can be a dog’s friend.  Whenever I see someone fighting, I’ll stop them and say you are friends…”

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“It’s all about loyalty, faith and friendship.  Sometimes I feel like Wilbur…because I also, like him, feel very lonely at times…”

What we learned about reading:  Before and Now…

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“I used to think that reading is just for fun…but now I think reading is something you can learn from…”

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“…every book has adventure, mystery and suspense.”

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“…I used to think that you read because you can say ‘…I’m better than you.’  But now when Literature Circle started, I realized that if you don’t read, you’re lost and you don’t know what to do…”

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“I used to think that reading is just reading…reading is not only reading, it is something that the author is trying to share…”

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“…Now I think reading is not just for fun, but to help us understand life…”

Reading Strategies that Work!

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“…reading with expression because if we read with expressions, we know the character more and what it is feeling…keeping a routine of reading.”

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“…I could talk with the characters and they would talk back to me again after a minute…my post it strategy helped and re-reading, stop and review and last but not the least predicting my favorite…”

On IB Learner Profile and Attitudes…

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“…respect and enthusiasm are the main…”

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“…confidence that I can finish the book…open-minded to myself for difficult words because I get irritated very fast.”

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“The attitude integrity because in the book the characters were telling words like sorry, thank you…”

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“…risk-taker by reading some hard words…empathy and commitment by reminding myself to read…”

I feel very happy and fulfilled as a teacher that there were changes in how my students view reading. The Literature Circle helped them with their attitude, not only with reading, but toward themselves and others.  I think I’m most proud that they opened their little world to a book that they never knew can make an impact to their learning.  They opened their little world to others, and took risks to be in a world that they can still further explore.

And now, one thing’s for sure- we are all very excited for our next set of books!  Hooraay!