Nicole Pacholski Credit: photo by Christine Oliva

In January, two 3rd-grade teachers, Ronelle Robinson of Cameron Elementary and Nicole Pacholski of Mitchell Elementary, completed a two-week residency at North Kenwood-Oakland Professional Development Charter School.

Each had a goal in mind. Robinson wanted to learn questioning techniques to aid reading comprehension. Pacholski wanted to learn how to break literacy skills, such as writing a letter or a summary, into smaller steps that students could more readily grasp.

For two hours each morning, they observed Kimberly Folkening teach reading and writing to her 3rd-graders. Each afternoon, they read professional literature. Both call it the best professional development of their careers.

“It was amazing,” says Robinson, a 12-year teaching veteran. “It changed the way I teach reading.”

When she read a story to her class before, she would do what most teachers do: pause to ask a question and pick a student to respond. Now she has a new routine that gets all students talking.

On a morning in early April, Robinson sits cross-legged on a chair, holding up an illustrated story. Students sit before her, each beside a partner.

The story, “Moses Goes to a Concert,” is about a deaf boy who learns to play the drum. Every page or so, Robinson pauses with a prompt such as, “We read another story earlier in the year about someone who became ill and lost their hearing.

“Talk about that,” she directs. Around the rug, students turn to their partners and quietly discuss what they recall.

Two girls sitting near the front try to jog their memories. “The lady in the book Mrs. Robinson read who got a high fever and lost all her hearing and her eyesight,” one girl remembers. Finally, they come up with the name of the “someone:” Helen Keller.

“Turn and Talk” is just one of several strategies she now uses. The day before, for instance, she read her class the same story, pausing to wonder aloud about story events, such as why deaf students held balloons while they watched the concert—”Was it to feel the vibrations?” That activity models the thinking students must do to comprehend a story.

When reading the professional literature, Robinson stumbled upon a surprising fact: Asking students questions was one of the least effective ways to help them understand their reading. Rather, she says, “you teach them to question themselves.”

On another day in April, Nicole Pacholski settles her class into their independent reading time and then gathers four girls around a small table in one corner of the room. Each has a copy of “Cam Jansen and the Mystery of the UFO,” an eight-chapter paperback. Today’s lesson concerns chapters five and six.

During her residency, Pacholski admired the way Folkening balanced her lessons between focusing on a particular skill—today’s is summarizing—and responding to individual needs. “It takes a lot of practice to do it well,” she says.

This reading group, the middle one of five, usually meets twice a week. The girls had read the two chapters on their own and written a brief summary of each.

One girl, LaStarr, reads her chapter five summary: “Cam has found out the aliens are children. The aliens are wearing aluminum foil and blue wool socks and green gloves.” Mariah follows: “Cam seen two children but no creatures.”

After helping Mariah correct her verb tense, Pacholski says, “Let’s talk about these two. Let’s compare them. Simone, what do you think?”

Simone thinks that LaStarr’s summary is better because she included more details, and Mariah agrees: “I think I need to put in a little bit more details.”

When all the chapter five summaries are analyzed, the students get a chance to revise their chapter six summaries, using what they just learned. “We get to the point and show a little bit of detail,” Pacholski reminds them.

Mariah does better the second time around. “Cam and Eric was spying on Billy to see if they were fakes,” she reads.

Pacholski asks if the girls have a compliment for Mariah. LaStarr does. “She didn’t say ‘looking.’ She said ‘spying.'”

“Spying gives you a sense of mystery,” their teacher agrees. “You could be just glancing out the window or staring across the room. That’s why it’s important as writers to use really good word choice.”

During the ensuing discussion, Pacholski weaves in other skills as the needs arise, such as backing up an opinion with a reference to the text or skimming to locate a relevant passage.

Juggling five reading groups takes preparation and a disciplined schedule, she remarks. Before her residency, she says she occasionally let the groups slide. But Folkening made time every day, Pacholski observed.

“Seeing her do it showed me, ‘Yes, I can do it. Yes, I want to do it.’ And why it’s so important to the students as well.”

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