Thursday, September 30, 2010

Embrace the Mess

We like to use catch phrases in education. How far can you read without coming across these: collaboration, project-based learning, formative assessment, authentic audience, or student-centered classroom. It seems that for many, these phrases become empty vessels--elaborate and  impressive, but containing little depth. Too often we talk in theory and assume that educators can fill in the details. I would like to share how I added flesh to these phrases in my sophomore English classroom (These methods can be applied to any discipline).

First, let me say that I am not a big fan of final exams in high school. Instead, I would prefer to see a Final Project. Assessing growth and learning is much more valid when measuring the development of a project over several weeks than on a ninety-minute test. Here’s what I did:

There were six weeks left of school, and one novel left to read: Lord of the Flies. Now, as much as I love teaching literature, Lord of the Flies is not on my top ten list to teach. Yes, I do realize the literary merit, but always struggled teaching the book. I decided to take this opportunity to try something different. Instead of a final exam, the students would complete a final project, where I would assess their skills on what I felt was important. I wanted them to do a project that would measure their success in:

· Cooperative learning
· Literary Analysis
· Inquiry Research
· Text marking
· Reading for purpose
· Peer teaching
· Literature circles
· Collaborative writing
· Creating a multi-media research project
· Proper documentation and citation

I began by placing students in heterogeneous groups of three, and passed out copies of Lord of the Flies. To each group, I gave a slip of paper with one of the following phrases:

· Freudian Psychology
· Biblical Allusions
· Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs
· Biography of Golding
· Allegory
These represented the five themes I would have “covered” in a more traditional teaching of the novel. I then told them that they were going to read the book on their own, with support from their group, through the lens of the particular theme or motif on the slip of paper. When they text marked (which they had done all year) it was to be from the perspective of that particular lens. Whenever they chose, they could meet to discuss issues in the book and help make meaning. There would be no study guide, no quizzes, and no vocabulary lists. The final product was to create a scholarly article online analyzing the particular theme and how it was illustrated in the text. We used a wiki as a vehicle to create these articles. Students were permitted to use whatever resources they could find, add appropriate, helpful images, and provide links to other related articles. In addition, groups were to supply two foundation questions relating to specific issues raised in the article. They were not to supply answers.
At first, the kids were a bit shocked. I had always tried to promote independence and developed activities that afforded them some autonomy…but not THIS much. As the weeks progressed, students read, discussed, researched, discussed some more and even consulted groups with the same theme in other classes via an online discussion board. They learned, struggled, disagreed, negotiated, and learned more; it was a messy six weeks. At certain times I gave them feedback directly on their wiki, suggesting ideas, praising good work, and posing questions, always posing questions.

The time came when the books were read, articles were written and foundation questions were asked. But what about a final assessment? Students needed to be well versed in all the themes. Students were to read the articles of the other groups and answer their foundation questions. What was created was a network of “experts” in one area who shared their expertise with the rest of a class; it resembled a “jigsaw on steroids.” The students were given three days to read, review, ask questions of each other via discussion boards or directly on the wiki. What I found was that during this phase, students had to defend their positions on the articles they wrote, which were often called into question by the other students. Of course I encouraged them to revise based on any new ideas they had. Yes, this was a messy three days as well. What a wonderful mess.

What I found is that through this process, students gained a much deeper understanding, asked more important questions, and spent more time researching than I had ever experienced before. Even after the assessments were collected, students still questioned, discussed, and defended views about the book, and human nature. When I surveyed the students afterwards, phrases like “hard work,” “on my own,” “worked to make,” and “I really understood,” kept popping up.
As I look back, I have never gotten such a response with using study guides, quizzes, and vocabulary lists. I will admit it was the hardest I had ever worked on an “independent” study project. What I found was that I was able to assess far more learning targets than I could with a timed test. Messy? Yes. Was it worth the mess? What do you think?

Friday, September 17, 2010

Lighting the Fire

This week I was asked to speak to the District science teachers.  The topic: "21st Century Collaboration."  Hmm. A dilemma.  I don't know about you, but I've had about enough of "21st Century" in the title of anything. I mean, what else should we be doing? We only have 90 years left in this century.  "collaboration."  OK...that's in my wheel house...Cooperative Learning master.

The eyes of my audience were a kaleidescope of emotions. Anticipation, and excitement as well as skepticism and, yes, dread permeated.  Can you say "Differentiated instruction?"

The faces turned to wonder, relief and intrigue as the conversation went on.

I spoke very little about technology.  Instead we talked about "authentic audience,"  and "meaningful purpose."  We talked about "inquiry" and "Positive Interdependence," and how learning science cannot be bridled by the walls of a school.  We talked about "Wouldn't it be great to work with some kids near Ottawa, Illinois, who live on the banks of the Illinois river, infested with Asian carp, and get video, data, and first-hand experience on invasive species.  How about getting in contact with professors and researchers from institutions around the country. Fermilab is right down the road...but why stop there. The excitement grew with the potential of how their classes could change. Then the moment I waited for arrived: "But how can we do this?"

THEN we talked about technology.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Myth of Classroom Discussion

“Class discussion on…” How many times have you written that on a lesson plan? Here’s another question: how many of those sessions are truly “discussions”? In real situations I know of no discussions that include one person directing questions to a large group of people who raise hands, competing to be the first to answer. True class discussions are rare. I have seen it done well by a few teachers in my school. The class is organized in a big circle, and more often than not, the teacher is outside of that circle, merely moderating. Discussion skills take practice too. If you circle the wagons and expect kids (at any age) to conduct a scholarly discussion on their own, you may be disappointed. While this scenario is closer to “discussion,” two problems still exist. First, only those who are socially assertive participate, and second, due to the competition to be fast, responses are often half-baked and brief.

So what’s the solution? Cooperative groups can encourage a higher participation rate—it’s hard to hide in a group of three. The problem is that often some great ideas are lost within the group and not shared with the whole class.

Enter discussion boards.

OK, discussion boards arent as sexy and new as some other applications discussion boards hold many advantages over class conversations. Since they are asynchronous, participants have time to respond; there is no pressure to “compete” with other students to answer quickly. Another advantage of asynchronous communication is that it often results in more thoughtful, thorough responses. A study done in 2006 revealed that asynchronous writing produced richer, morwe thoughtful responses than did synchronous writing (Mobrito). Also, because of the permanence, participants can read and reread posts to avoid misinterpretation.

Because of their egalitarian nature, discussion boards allow opportunity or all students. I was always pleasantly surprised to see some very thoughtful responses from students normally “quiet” in the classroom. Perhaps those students were not as vocal, or they preferred to have time to process the ideas to formulate insightful responses. Either way, the discussion board encourages thoughtful participation from everyone.

Using discussion boards allow teachers to assess social skills as well as the content. Give students a set of protocols for posting on discussion boards. Make sure when responding that they acknowledge the previous response and if they disagree, that they criticize the idea, not the person. It’s also a good idea that students are aware that they are to post using standard English; this isn’t a chat room (LOL).

Some teachers may argue that they don’t have the time to post, review, and respond to discussion board. True, if discussion boards are added on to an existing curriculum, time becomes very limited. Consider this: perhaps the discussion boards are replacing some other activities that are more teacher centered. Perhaps you can “selectively abandon” some other activities. (Translation: lose the worksheets).
Once you set up the discussion board the teacher include a few other structures to ensure success. First, you must determine your role in the discussion. Will you participate? Are you starting all threads and letting them respond? Will you assign student moderators for discussions? Ideally, the more students “own” the discussion, the more authentic, but you may need to be a presence at least in the beginning. Next you must determine the topics of discussion. Make sure that the focus is on open-ended questions that encourage debate, dissention, and controversy; the idea is to encourage students to support answers, and listen to dissenting opinions.

Equitable participation is often another caveat. One solution is to break down the discussions into smaller groups, that way each person is responsible for a larger percentage of the discussion. Another possibility is to require minimum posts for “credit.” While I am loath to do this, I did find the need to tell students to “start at least one new thread” and “post at least three responses.” While this is admittedly, a bit artificial, it was a good way to get students started. Ideally, the discussion leads to meaning that will be required for another project; the motivation stems from the idea that “I need this discussion board to learn X.”
If you are not sure where to start, many web applications contain discussion boards. Ning, Moodle, and Wikispaces each has discussion board capabilities.

Many forward-thinking educators preach the need to develop more student-centered classrooms. To do so, students need to “own” the learning and have the opportunity to use take advantage of learning spaces outside of the classroom walls. Purposeful use of discussion boards is one way to achieve this.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Four Faces

Disclaimer: This post has nothing to do with technology.

Three years ago I was a sophomore English teacher. The significance is that for the first time in my career there are no students in the halls who know me as their current of former teacher. While I love my current position there is a bit of sadness in this thought. So last week, when I walked down the main hall I smiled when I noticed that in the pictures of the “2010 Seniors of the Year” the visage of a former student was smiling back at me. Josh was named the Speech and Communications Senior of the Year: no small task in a school with ten state speech championships in the last eleven years. I knew he was a talented speaker, and was a joy to have in class, and I must admit, my chest swelled a bit knowing that I was his sophomore English teacher. Then I came back to reality when I remembered that we were blessed with Jan Heiteen, one of the top speech coaches in the nation.

My eyes scanned the pictures until they met another familiar face; Casey was named top PE student. I remember Casey’s happy, hard-working demeanor as well as the accolades she received as a top cross country runner. But this wasn’t sports…it was P.E. Often times, athletes have a blasé attitude towards P.E.; their physical exertion was saved for their sport, not P.E. class. Yet here was Casey, recognized for her leadership and exemplary behavior. The same behavior she exhibited in my class--every day.

I scanned another row, and…what do you know. Roxana: “Student of the Year” for Family and Consumer Science. Like Casey and Josh, Roxana was also a “pleasure to have in class” (How’s that for a cliché). I did some work with Roxana’s senior Intro to Teaching class last year. It was rewarding to see her blossom into a poised, articulate, enthusiastic teaching candidate (She is thankfully majoring in elementary education now), after knowing her as an effervescent sophomore.

Wow Three of my students were “seniors of the year” unless…

There was Amanda. Shy, hard-working Amanda, named Special Services Student of the Year. My thoughts went back to seventh period sophomore “Skills” (always hated that term) three years ago. Amanda: always making eye contact, always pen in hand, always careful notes, always smiling when I said good bye at the end of the period.

Four. I had four students on the board. No small feat considering we have over 3,000 students, and nearly thirty English teachers. As I walked down the hall, my pride was tempered with two thoughts. First, while all receiving good grades, none of them were necessarily the best writers I had in class. Second, Could it be that perhaps I was the one who was fortunate to have them?

Please do not think that the purpose of this post is to gloat over something that, frankly, I didn’t earn. The point is this: we teachers, especially in the fragmented world of high schools, often look at our students through the lens of our discipline.After all, I wasn’t teaching honors sophomore English. I had two sections of “regular” and two of “Skills.” We have to remember, though, that an “average” math student might be a brilliant writer; a struggling history student might be an accomplished cellist. And the list goes on.

Josh, Casey, Roxana, and Amanda were part of the “last class” I taught, and I was fortunate to have these special kids. My only regret is that it took pictures on a wall for me to realize how talented and truly remarkable these kids are. We all need to keep that in minds with all of our students.