Vogel-Wetmore School Closes the Achievement Gap with WordsWordsWords. Another Story from These High-Achieving/High-Poverty Classrooms I’m Watching.

Words for How to Close the Gap: Or How to Talk to the Elephant

FACT:  Within the first four years of life, children from welfare families hear 13 million words; children from working-class families hear 26 million words; children from professional families hear 45 million words.

FACT: Words are the soil for growing knowledge; well-composted soil is going to work way better than thin soil.

FACT: The elephant in our high-poverty classrooms is the WORD GAP.

Since language is the basis of reading and writing, words have star billing in Vogel-Wetmore’s high-achieving, high-poverty classrooms.

I don’t see commercial kits with names like Build a Strong Vocabulary. I don’t see flash cards. I don’t see word lists to memorize.

I do see classrooms where students build concrete vocabulary by interacting with a complex learning environment. I see a wide, rich use of words.

Choral reads, Chants, and Readers Theater: We need to hear a word multiple times to get it into our functioning memory. Rich literature that tickles the tongue and pleases the palate provides enough repetition for the heard words to become reading sight words.

Accountable Talk: I overhear both teachers and students seriously responding to and further developing what others in the group have said. How do you know that? Can you give me some examples? Where did you find that information?  Can you show us which part of the text tells you that info? What do you mean? I know that because it says here…Can you explain that more? Say more about that. Here’s what I heard you say. Is that what you meant?

Labeled Rooms: I see signs on objects. This is the faucet; please keep it turned off to conserve. This is the pencil sharpener; use it judiciously.

I hear teachers read aloud. A lot.

I see teachers write in front of the class and then say, In your writing today, do what I just did to tell more in other words. Some of our students come into reading through the writing door.

Small reading groups meet several times a week. And it’s all about reading and discussing the words.

Students attend to words. Throughout writing and reading, math, and the content areas,I hear kids compare, combine, and contrast words; use more specific words; identify or change a word’s part of speech or tense; use the root or affix; visualize or act out a word.

Classrooms have access to several paperback book rooms.

A new study confirms what these teachers know: Understanding basic words may come from a flash of initial insight more than repetition. But the flashes of insight need the whetstone of a fertile environment. Or retention is nil.

I walk by the book rooms–the doors stay wide open and welcoming; sunlight pours in the tall windows of this ancient building; and I think, This is what it’s all about, creating readers who read, and listen, and talk–and, along the way learn tons of words.

And close that gap.

Patty 9/22/12

John Wooden, UCLA’s famed basketball coach, told his players “be quick; but don’t hurry.” I sense Coach Wooden’s spirit in these high-achieving, high poverty 5th grade classrooms.*

John Wooden, UCLA’s famed basketball coach, told his players be quick; but don’t hurry. I sense Coach Wooden’s spirit in these high-achieving, high poverty 5th grade classrooms.

I walk in as Mrs M says take three minutes to finish the math. Put your worksheets in the bin and get your notebooks out. We want to get writing workshop started. I feel a frisson of excitement. Anticipation of the next thing gives a thrum to life, builds momentum, makes the pace seem fast and fruitful.

Mrs M uses her big schoolroom wall clock. Okay! Math papers away, pencils down, eyes on me. 5..4..row one is ready…3..almost everyone in row four..2..1. Let’s start.  And all during the workshop she uses the time to keep things moving. At different points in the lesson she says, We have two minutes. Tell me everything you know about a power paragraph.  OR: Let’s write for 10 minutes and then we’ll listen to what we’ve got. OR:  One minute left. 

Every minute has value. This is important work they do in this classroom; it’s urgent.  I wipe my brow; it’s that intense. Mrs M is at all times in charge, actively managing what’s going on.  Workshop has several parts to it and she announces them. The students know for sure when one is ending and the next begun.

Let’s take five minutes here. Watch me while I show you how I figure out my topic. She writes, and then asks, what did you notice that I did here, Joseph? OR:  What do we need to have in a power paragraph, Felicia? I had the feeling that everyone knew that Mrs M might call on them, and so they stay engaged and ready to give their ideas. There was no mucking around, waiting for hands to go up and children to get called on. Now let’s take 10 or 11 minutes and you do what I did. Quick Quick, let’s get started. Then: Complete the idea you’re on; we’ve got one minute left before share time.

The class is keen both to read their pieces and to listen. Mrs. M says, Enrique, your first simile for the year. All right! Frances, what else did you notice that Enrique did? Then she asks, And what score would you give this paragraph? We know we don’t have any 1’s or 2’s in here, but was this a 3,4,5, or 6? And why do you think that? What would make it better, Mary? I agree, strong verbs. Absolutely. More specifics? Yes.

And then, the clincher: I want you to think about the verbs and nouns you’ll use tomorrow in your next paragraph.  

This ending to the writing lesson made me look around for Coach Wooden. He liked to say everything in practice must happen at game speed and be useful in the game. Writing workshop was full of actual writing even down to the closer: real writers think about their writing even when they’re not writing.

Game speed and real.

Patty 9/17/12

* Vogel-Wetmore School, Church St., Torrington, CT 06791