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Chapter 4

Chapter 4



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Published by: pavansohal on Jul 17, 2009
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Using a Portfolio in a Middle School with Students Who Have Literacy Problems: The Trade that Paid 
 Judith Rosenbloom, Reading Specialist
Lawrence Middle SchoolLawrence School DistrictLong Island, New York 
The red-penned composition papers, the requisite ten questions that magically appeared afterevery story, and the all-too predictable spelling test on Fridays are some of the teaching toolsthat I traded for something quite different. As a reading and English teacher for over twenty years, I frankly found it difficult to give up the methods that for so long had been a tradi-tional part of both my training and my own education. Yet, over approximately the last sixyears, I began to hear a great deal about a new theory of literacy instruction—somethingcalled “whole language”—that encouraged me to abandon many tried-and-true teachingtechniques of the past.I witnessed the successful application of this new approach in elementary level classes inmy school district and heard some secondary teachers talk about how whole language theory could be applied to the secondary grades. I discovered that whole language theory and peda-gogy made my traditional teaching techniques both unreasonable and obsolete. I had tomake this change, this trade, because I saw the sense in applying whole language concepts toteach students to take responsibility for their reading and writing. The teacher was no longerthe font of all knowledge; the focus of the classroom took a 180 degree turn and now placedimportance on the students’ thinking strategies. This new, whole language concept requiredstudents to take responsibility for their own literacy.
 When I look back now at the journey that remedial reading instruction has taken fromthe skill and drill programs of the 1970s and 1980s to today’s instructional strategies thatemploy a whole language approach, I am so impressed by the logic of the change. Formerly,much of remediation took the form of practicing skills without any meaningful context. When the skills seemed to be perfected, students were allowed to move on to another skill. Inow realize the joylessness of this instruction that reading teachers felt was the most scientificmeans of correcting problems. I wonder how we thought students would ever apply these iso-lated skills to any real reading or want to immerse themselves in a good book.Readinginstructionisnowdonethroughthecontextofabookthatastudentisinter-estedinreading.Studentsresponsestoreadingassignmentsnowfocusonreactingtopas-sagesinliteraturethathavemeaningforthem.Duringperiodicconferenceswithindividualstudents,IhavethemreadpassagesaloudbasedonaquestionIposeoronethatthestu-dentmayhave.Fromthisoralreading,Icanassessuencyanddeterminethekindsoproblemsthatcausecomprehensiontosuffer.Duringbookdiscussions,studentsoralresponsesalsoletmeseehowwelltheyunderstandwhattheyrereading.Writtenresponsesinreadinglogsareanotheraspectofourprogramthatprovideinsightsintoreadingand writingdifficulties.Minilessonsarebasedondiagnosticobservationsofstudentsduringourconferencesandduringclass.Suchlessonshelpunravelthereadingtanglesthatstudentsexperience.
I must admit that the turn toward embracing whole language and portfolio assessment cre-ated concern in me. I knew I had to embark on something new; I had to give up comfort-able old ways for something better. At first I did a great deal of listening and observing; Iengaged in strong debates with colleagues. Then one weekend I read Nanci Atwell’s book 
In the Middle 
(1987). Atwell brought together ideas that had been the subject of discussion inschool and were also presented in workshops that I attended. She spoke straight to my mindand my heart, and I became a convert. After Atwell, I read the work of Lucy Calkins (1986)and Georgia Heard (1989). Intellectual commitment to the theory was vitally important tomy conversion; I had to understand the thinking behind the practices before I could honestly and sincerely implement new ideas.In the professional reading, I kept seeing references to the idea that a teacher could only understand the value of whole language and writing process strategies, if she, herself, hadfirsthand experiences with the methods. I played with this idea for a while, and it seemedquite important. The Native American belief that one must walk in another’s moccasins tounderstand his or her life experience has held increasing significance for me. It became clearthat to use new strategies with my students I first needed to experience the process myself.I began to ask myself questions about how I approached writing. I thought about whatpart of my writing is most difficult or most satisfying. I began to see what it feels like toreflect on my own writing behavior and found this self-questioning to be illuminating andvaluable. Not only did this teach me about my own writing, it also helped me understandmyself as a reader, teacher, and person. Self-knowledge allows us to grow, change, andmature. What I have learned has shown me how to help my students when they reflect andthen to use the reflection process to move ahead. At this point, it became quite clear that
using a writing portfolio would be a vehicle that promotes growth. I have also come tounderstand that a portfolio cannot be standardized; what is good for one set of students inone class may not be suitable for another group of students, even if they are in the same gradeand attend the same school. The portfolio is simply a tool that helps meet the needs of stu-dents, and it must be customized according to individual interests, abilities, and maturity.Selecting the components of a portfolio is determined by choosing tools that are appropriatefor students to learn and grow.
In our middle school, seventh- and eighth-grade students with literacy problems are assignedto a class called English/Reading, which is team taught by both an English and readingteacher. Students who have fallen below the 30th percentile on a standardized reading testadministered to all students in our district, as well as students who have been recommendedby the sixth-grade language arts teachers, are scheduled for this special class. Of course, stu-dents realize that having two teachers in one class is not typical of middle school and ques-tion this arrangement. We are quite forthcoming and explain that their reading and writingare not as strong as they might be and that having two teachers doubles the instructionaltime; therefore, we can more quickly help them improve. We also stress how fortunate thestudents are to have this type of instruction and that when sufficient improvement occurs,they can move to a regular English class.Imustbeforthrightinadmittingthattheteamteacherapproachmakesmanystu-dentsuncomfortable.Inourschool,mathissimilarlyorganizedtoprovideremediation,butothersubjectsaremodiedbyhavingsmallernumbersofstudentswithjustoneteacher.Studentsalwaysknowthatregardlessofwhatyoucallaclass,orhowyouexplainitsbenefit,thereisadifferencethatseparatesthemfromotherstudents,andtheyhateit! Adolescentsdonotwanttobedifferentfromtheirpeers.Manyofthesestudentsseemtoresenttheteachersthatrecommendedthemfortheseclassesorwhokeepthemenrolledinthisformofremediation.Westronglybelievethatallofourstudentscanimproveandcontinuallytrytoconveythistothem,butitisaconstantbattletohelpstudentsmain-tainapositiveattitude.It’s also important to point out that having two teachers in a class of ten to twelve stu-dents does make a tremendous difference in the quality of instruction. Every possible teach-ing arrangement can be used in these classes: one teacher may be providing instruction, andhis or her teammate may be assisting others; each teacher may take an individual group to work with; or a teacher may take one student for an intense instructional period while theother teacher facilitates cooperative group instruction. As the needs of the students becomeevident, roles and teaching patterns can be flexibly organized.
 Assessment techniques that were part of past teaching practices also needed to be changed.For example, the red marks teachers placed on composition papers were replaced by ques-

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