Tag Archives: Student

Where did that teacher go? Helping students to make their own decisions

I was looking at some of the EQAO (Ontario’s standardized test in grades 3, 6, 9 and 10) questions in an attempt to understand why many of our students are not doing well.  The problems were hard!  They were tricky!  I actually had to read one of the grade 6 math questions a few times to figure out what to do!  And I think of myself as fairly competent in math, and quite literate.  When looking at some of the other questions in math I noticed that quite a few of the questions required me to perform multiple steps, think beyond one strand in mathematics.  In reading, the questions often required me to pull multiple sources of information together.  In writing, I had to determine the form based on the prompt; I wasn’t necessarily told what to do.

In a conversation with one of our elementary consultants, she expressed surprise that our students, in writing did not score very well in organization.  She said, “But our teachers teach writing forms to death!”  What was happening?

We, as educators, train our students to learn in particular ways. It could be that the way we organize curriculum delivery actually trains students NOT to think.  So when they go to write the EQAO assessment, or end of term exams, and have to think, have to pull multiple sources of information together, make decisions, our students don’t do so well.  Not because they are incapable, and not because we didn’t teach them the stuff, but because they have not been given opportunities to practice making their own decisions.  Let’s look at two examples:

When students learn writing through units that have students write one form of writing (letters, reports, procedural writing, etc.) over and over for many weeks, teachers end up making all the decisions, not the student.  The student isn’t faced with the challenge of determining the form best suited to the audience and the purpose.  Instead, the teacher has taken control of the most important aspect of the writing process and the student only needs to comply by writing in that form on a particular topic, not think.  It shouldn’t be surprising then that when faced with organizing his or her thoughts on a topic during an assessment (or even in real life) the student may be at loose ends.  Where did that teacher who tells me what to do go?

Problem-solving in mathematics classrooms is current practice but there are many misconceptions.  It is not problem-solving if the teacher guides the student through the problem.  It is not problem-solving if the student isn’t challenged.  It is not problem-solving if the student only works in groups and never independently. Students are assessed individually.  And, if every problem for the last 3 weeks has been about the same concept, it really isn’t problem solving.  It shouldn’t be surprising then that when faced with a year-end assessment or exam, many students are at loose ends.  Where did that teacher who tells me what to do go?

We may give lip service to critical thinking and open-ended tasks.  But I urge us all to think about whether our classroom practice is really training our students to be independent thinkers, or whether we actually train them to rely on our guidance.  It’s hard to be a teacher and watch your students struggle.  It’s hard to find that ”just right” amount of struggle.  But, standardized tests, like EQAO, end of semester exams, and real life, all depend on students being able to make their own decisions about what needs to be done.  Let’s help them to do that by providing them with many, many opportunities to do so throughout the course of the year.

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Filed under assessment, growth mindset, pedagogy, Uncategorized

Thinking about the first day of school already-or not!

I have posted this, or something similar, at the end of June before, but I always think it is a good time to think about it.  Or at least, a thought for you to tuck away for some time later.

Just maybe, over the summer, sitting on the patio, paddling in a canoe, relaxing in a deck chair, watching the sunset, running, or whatever it is you do, you might think about school.  I always find that my mind drifts there every once in a while, and often a lot of my deep planning gets done—the ideas that anchor me.

Which day of the year will you have all eyes on you?  The keenest students? The least amount of student misbehaviour?  The first day of school.  So, try thinking about how you can capitalize on that to engage your students in the deep thinking and exciting work you want them to do.  Often we think, as teachers, that we have to set down all the expectations on the first day of school or the rest of the year will be chaos.  You do have to live and model your expectations, but I’m not sure you need to talk about them.  Maybe that class agreement is something to save until later in the first week.  By then, I suspect your students will have already figured out your expectations and the activity will go a lot faster.

Let’s think about the first day of school from a student’s point of view.  They are excited to be back and meet their new teacher and see their friends.  they are excited to use their new and shiny pencil crayons.  They actually WANT to do some work.  But frequently it is a day of “sit and get”: one teacher after another going over the rules and expectations.  Really, our rules aren’t any different than last year’s rules.  And most rules are self-evident.  We don’t really need to talk a lot about keeping your locker tidy since I doubt any of our students would think that our expectation was to do otherwise (although they may act that way over the course of the year!).

In some schools/classrooms, there is a feeling that we need to ease students into school with a week of fun activities.  I don’t think so.  First of all, they just had 10 weeks of fun activities or camps.  Second, if you describe your first week as “fun”, then my default you are saying that real school is not “fun”.  You may want to have a few team building activities, but I would urge you to have them be within the context of curriculum.

Why not have that first interaction with your students be challenging? Be engaging?  Be creative?  Set the tone for how learning will take place in your classroom.  Pose a question, get them creating or writing or exploring or problem-solving.  Hook your students in right away.  Here are a few ideas:

  • Read aloud the best short story you know, or the first chapter of the read aloud.
  • Introduce writer’s workshop with idea generation activities so that they are itching to start writing.  You could even start writing. Do a quick write about what you didn’t do this summer, or the best small moment, or what you wished you had done.
  • Introduce a complex but open ended problem such as “How could you measure a puddle?” Or, “If all the  students lay head to toe, how far would we reach?” Or, “What are all the different ways we could arrange the desks in this classroom?  Why are the advantages and disadvantages?”  Or, “If we all joined hands, in the whole school, could we encircle the school?”.  Check out these sites for some great problems: http://learn.fi.edu/school/math2/ or www.estimation180.com or http://www.101qs.com/
  • Get in teams and create an obstacle course that will challenge the rest of the students. Or, read the rules to Harry Potter’s Quidditch and figure out how to create your own version of the game (without the flying broomsticks).
  • Have some equipment available and have students figure out how to move an object from point A to point B without carrying it.  Or, review structures, movement and friction by having groups create a marble maze that goes the slowest.  Or, provide students with a stack of newspapers and masking tape with the challenge of building a piece of furniture.
  • Put out a variety of art supplies and have students begin to experiment with texture and line with mixed media.  Have them create and critique a piece in the first week that can then be their jumping off point for the remainder of the year:  what did they like? What would they want to do differently?
  • In any subject present a problem to solve by the end of the week.
  • Start the year with a week of genius hour where students can learn about and present about a passion of theirs.
  • Have students create a class song on their instruments or in garage band.  Show them a clip from “Stomp” and have students create their own number.
  • If you teach kindergarten or grade one, you have to teach them to “read” on the first day–even if it is just a shared poem.  Let me take a copy home to read to their parents.
  • Just start your course–but not by lecturing, or reviewing, or a really big diagnostic test.  Start by engaging your students in the kind of learning you want them to be doing all year.

I am sure for your subject area you have thousands of ideas.  Often I hear teachers saying that we need to ease into school.  Maybe that is not true.  Maybe we should jump in with both feet and just start.  When our students go home after the first day of school, we want them to go home full of excitement, joy and enthusiasm for learning.  It is up to us to create those conditions.  The first day of school could be the best day ever..until the second day of school.

 

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Classroom cultures that support, not just teach, social skills and well-being

While we know that we are responsible for the 3Rs and other curriculum stuff, we also know that teachers have a role to play in shaping students as they grow into healthy and competent adults.  I met with a woman this week who is interested in developing a program for schools that teaches kids about skills such as growth mindset, autonomy, resiliency, autonomy, kindness, empathy, persistence, etc.  I liked her ideas but it did make me think how do we actually go about doing those things in schools?  After all, over the years there have been a number of “programs”.  There have been posters and puppets and film clips and blackline masters.

It is important that teachers know the skills we want kids to develop, but I am not convinced that they learn them from a course or a binder of lesson plans.  Sometimes when a school adopts a particular program it is useful to have a common language, but if that is all there is, it doesn’t change much.  What does work?  I suspect that when you are able to shape the teaching in the school to support the development of the skills is when you get the greatness traction.  What types of things do we do and how might they help students to develop these important life skills?

When we have multiple opportunities for students to try things in our classrooms without being graded, without needing to get it “right” the first time, and with our trust that they will figure it out, I think that we help them to develop growth mindset, resiliency and persistence.  For example, they know in Maker Space that it is not about getting the project to be done, or to be the best, that is important, but understanding the science behind the mistakes that is important.  They know in problem solving in math that students will solve the problem in a variety of different ways.  They know that they may be asked to share their answer that is incorrect, and that is ok.  They know that we will give them immediate feedback on their writing so that they can improve it BEFORE it is graded.  When we listen to student groups and do not take the lead, or participate as an equal, or make a small suggestion and walk away, we are saying “I trust you to figure this out”.

Empathy, kindness, and autonomy (being in charge of yourself) are also developed in our classrooms.  When our students recognize that different kids get different supports it helps them to develop empathy.  When we have them read novels with strong characters or complex issues, they develop kindness and empathy.  When we allow them to make choices that are good for them in their work, they develop autonomy.  When they have opportunities to redo and retry they develop grit and persistence; they get to know themselves as learners.  When they see us treating students with kindness, respect and understanding, even when that student is struggling, they learn about kindness, respect and understanding.

I do not think that students develop all of these social and well-being skills through lessons alone.  An anchor chart on growth mindset will not ensure growth mindset if the classroom environment doesn’t support it.  A lesson on empathy won’t have any impact when students don’t see their teachers showing empathy and understanding.  But when we purposefully shape our classroom instruction and environment so that students have many, many opportunities over the year to experience the effects of these skills, and we, at times, name them and celebrate them, then I do think that students learn them.

Programs may guide us and help us to know the skills but the program alone won’t make the difference we want it to.  Students will always be learning social skills and personal skills in the context of the classroom.  We can choose which ones we want to develop by how we shape the instruction in our classroom:  a room that is about competition, compliance, completion and grades or a classroom that supports problem-solving, multiple attempts, and challenge.  A school of rigid and unbending rules or a school where staff model inclusiveness, empathy, understanding and kindness.  It may be worthwhile thinking about how we do this in a planned and purposeful way.

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Student choice vs. “you are still the teacher”

Sometimes when we adopt new ideas in education, it takes a while during the implementation stage to figure out where the balance is.  Some of you may remember “whole language”.  While the actual research into whole language pedagogy never suggested that phonics was not an important part of reading, the early implementation of the pedagogy got a little messed up.  Once we took the ideas of whole language and developed a more balanced approach to learning, things got better.

As the educational community has moved more towards “student-centered learning”, “learning by doing” and “student voice and choice”, we do need to remember that teachers can still tell kids that there are “must dos”.  It is choosing when and where to implement the “must dos” that is tricky and requires extensive teacher knowledge and professionalism.

Recently my math teachers and I went to a session with Marian Small ( a well-known mathematics guru).  A teacher in the audience lamented that her grade 9 students couldn’t cope with proportional reasoning because they didn’t know their multiplication facts.  Small’s response was:  Teach them.  As a more problem-based math environment is being implemented in Ontario there is confusion about math facts.  And, students who are perfectly capable of knowing them with greater automaticity arrive in grade 7 without that skill.  It makes fraction work very difficult.

In primary language classes across the western world, primary students are encouraged to write long before they know how to spell or use proper capitalization and punctuation.  This is a good thing.  The problem is that at some point there needs to be an expectation that they apply correct spelling, punctuation and capitalization as they are writing.  We get students arriving grade 7 believing that it ok to write without any capital letters, periods or paragraphs until the revision stage.  It is an efficient practice and no writer I know would ever make so much work for themselves.

So we have decided two things:  we will insist that most students learn their number facts and students will write using periods, capitals and paragraphs as they go in the first draft.  It is not a choice.  Students need to know how to do this.  We will see what happens.

It makes me think, however, about when and where student voice and choice should come into being and how we interpret this as teachers.  It reminds me of parenting.  I always gave my children a choice about the pajamas they wore.  I never gave them a choice about going to bed.  In classrooms we want to make sure that we are providing multiple entry points into learning and opportunities for students to express their voice through choice.  But, we also need to remember that we, as teachers, get the big picture.  There are times when we need to have “must dos”; when we need to ensure that students are having the specific opportunities that we know will ensure success.

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Differentiating the physical space in your classroom – increased movement and flexible groupings

Have you ever been to an all day workshop where you sat in the same spot all day long?  When I have those kinds of days I feel tired and achy.  I find that I start to lose my focus by mid-afternoon or earlier.

As a teacher you have multiple opportunities during each period to sit and stand and walk about.  What about our students?  What is their day like?  A high school teacher shadowed students for two days and has this report:  https://goo.gl/utB7iA.

Many teachers I know have been experimenting with different designs of classroom furniture.  In our goal of being planned, purposeful and proactive it may be worth examining how you arrange both your classroom desks and how much movement your students get during their time in your classroom.  No one method is “the answer” but all may be worth a thought or two.

  • Sometimes students may wish to work in groups and sometimes on their own. Having a variety of seating arrangements available may be easier than moving desks around all the time.  Within a single class students may move to different seating or standing arrangements to work.
  • Some teachers are experimenting with desks facing the wall. It both provides students with an opportunity to work on their own and for students to be more accountable with their technology as you can easily monitor what they are doing.  Plus, it will give you a lot more floor space–read on.
  • There is a trend towards standing desks. Standing while you work should be an option for all students.  Particularly students with ADHD will find this beneficial.  Studies have shown that students use 17% more calories just by standing at their desks.
  • We tend to use PDA/outside time  as a “reward” at the end of class. Two teachers I know are having their students do 10-15 minutes of DPA at the beginning of class and find that their students have much more focus.
  • In most classes the guided learning table as become the centre of instruction where students know that they can get support and help. Teachers who use this space regularly find that students ask to work there.
  • When students are doing group work, try having them work standing up at the white board. If you can find enough space try having all your groups stand up and work on non-permanent surfaces.  The standing up means they can move as they talk and the non-permanent part means that they will take more risks.
  • One teacher has let her students sit on the window ledge. I sat there and it was fun (and I could focus).  The students were able to stretch out in ways they can’t in their desks.
  • Think about having a few exercise balls that replace chairs.  Although our natural inclination is to think of all the negatives, the classrooms I know that use them find that after a few days the novelty wears off and students who need the balls for seating, use them.
  • Students often like to work on the floor in the hallways. It allows them to spread out.  Of course, the difficulty with the hall is that it is often hard for you to supervise.  Can you arrange the room, even temporarily to give all groups a space?
  • Table groupings based on a specific theme are also useful. Grade 7 history students adopted a particular perspective for the War of 1812.  They sat in their 1812 communities, using their 1812 identify.  Some of them started to sign all their work with their 1812 name!  The grouping of the students helped them to stay in character and enhanced their understanding.

And a caveat….in the midst of all this movement and flexibility, there will be some students who need to sit in the same spot every day.  It is comforting for them.  Even grownups tend to gravitate towards the same place in the room time and time again (think about staff meetings).  So, do keep that in mind as well.  A differentiated classroom is not just about differentiating the assignment.  It is also about differentiating the physical space students have and the amount of movement they may require to be able to focus for the whole day.

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Growth Mindset – Create an environment where anything is possible

I find the research around growth mindsets fascinating.  I catch myself praising students for intelligence now and switch it to effort.  I reflect on my own language when talking about students and try not to say things like “level 2 kids” or “IEP kids” as if they are labelled  for life.  I reflect on my own teaching practice and try to build in opportunities to look at mistakes differently.  And, I want to convey to students that grit, perseverence, effort and setting goals all make a difference.

But, I am also concerned how the educational community has jumped on the growth mindset bandwagon so quickly, as we in education are apt to do.  I never check my twitter feed without seeing new posts about growth mindset.  Teachers on pinterest are posting anchor charts and classroom libraries devoted to growth mindset.  I have been wondering how best to bring growth mindset research into the classroom.

As in many things (see my post: Is Teacher Lingo Good for Kids?) I worry that teachers may be laying the research too much at the feet of students.  I believe that all teachers should have a solid understanding of the current research about growth mindset.  It is our job to understand learning.  And, I don’t think it is a bad thing to let kids in on the information:  in small doses, as is age appropriate and not to the point that it overtakes the joy of learning.  If we really want students to believe in growth mindset, then we need to create a learning environment that supports it:

  • Teachers can ensure that they create open-ended and interesting tasks that are more likely to engage students in taking risks and persevering because they want to.
  • Teachers can ensure that they give descriptive feedback to students that helps them move forward and past the obstacles.
  • Teachers can help students to identify their own goals by providing exemplars, checklists and anchor charts.
  • Teachers can experiment with grading fewer assignments and giving effective feedback (not “good job!”) more often.
  • Teachers can encourage students during lessons to share both their successes and challenges.  There is great power in  students showing how they didn’t solve the math problem or asking their peers to help them rewrite the lead of their story.
  • Teachers can show students how they have developed their skills and grown over time.
  •  Teachers can plan recursively so that students have multiple opportunities to learn key concepts.
  • Teachers can plan activities that require a bit of struggle and let students struggle.  Students don’t really like tasks to be simple and boring–like anyone else, they enjoy challenge.

Students can learn about how feedback can help you improve a task (such as the famous butterfly example: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hqh1MRWZjms).    Students can read a book here or there where the theme is about effort and setting goals.  Students can celebrate when they have mastered something that was tricky before.

But, let us think more about how we as teachers create an environment in which students experience the benefits of a growth mindset over an environment where everything is about growth mindset.  Experience more than research is what will change a child’s mindset.   There is a plethora of children’s books about growth mindset but as a kid I wouldn’t want to read one every day.  Robert Munsch is probably still way more entertaining.  I would hate us to be so concerned with students believing in growth mindset that a parent-teacher interview started with:  “Jimmy just doesn’t seem to have a growth mindset and that is why he is not progressing as we would hope”.

Growth mindset is exciting research that may open up many pathways to students.  Our job is to embed the philosophy into our teaching, not teach the philosophy.  Let us create the conditions whereby students can’t help but believe that they can do anything.

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High Expectations …for kids.

A group of teachers  and I went to a workshop and watched a video of a grade 6 literature circle.  We had a chance to discuss it in our group and we thought that the students had done a pretty good job:  they were engaged and lively in their discussion, they talked about the book, they made reference to the book and talked about their connections to the main characters.  It sounded rather like a book club meeting I would go to.  When it was time to share with other table groups we were surprised that others had thought it was not a good discussion.  They thought the conversation should have been deeper.  They thought that the students should have referred back to the text more.  They thought that all students in the group should have spoken.  They thought that students should have not interrupted each other and used politer language (eg. Have you thought about this point?)  We wondered if our expectations were too low or were theirs too high?

A student in our school who spends a lot of her day with one-to-one support has been very unhappy by 1:00 p.m.  When we met to talk about strategies we began to realize that this young lady has constant “teaching” all day long because of the individualized instruction.  None of our other students are “on” for that long every day.  She probably needs more down time.  Maybe our expectations were unrealistic—most kids get lots of down time at school.

The grade 3 team was doing some teacher moderation of student writing.  We used our rubric to examine each piece.  As we get better at teaching, we also get better at knowing how to improve each student’s writing.  We needed to remind ourselves that many times this was good voice, good plot development, good arguing for grade 3.  Maybe the description was a little overdone; maybe the plot didn’t flow well.    Of course we could do better.  But they are just learning.

Our math teachers do lots of group work.  They have noisy classrooms.  Upon entering my first reaction is that it needs to be quieter.  But when I listen in on the conversations, they are all about math.  The students are all talking about math, all the time.  I don’t think that 30 grownups could talk about math quietly, so I shouldn’t expect that 30 students can.  In fact, I am impressed that 30 students are all talking about math for 20-30 minutes at a time.  There is an expectation that the students will be mathematicians who argue, and figure and ponder together.

So I have been thinking about all these things and wondering about the expectations we have for kids.  We want to set high expectations for all kids.  We want students to set goals and reach them.  We want our students to learn that it takes effort and hard work to achieve goals.  But, they are kids.

Imagine the following:

  • You have to sit on a hard plastic chair all day long. I hate long meetings.  I can’t wait for the break.  Sometimes I go to the bathroom just for a break, not because I have to.  Sometimes my head hurts because I have been concentrating so long.  Do we let our students stand, get up and move, go for a run around the school?  Should we purchase more exercise balls to sit on?
  • Your best friends are sitting right beside you but you can’t talk to them. Have you ever been to a meeting with your friends?  Don’t you talk to them?  Does your group at a PD session always stay on topic?  Do you ever laugh and joke around?
  • After you have worked a really long day, you have to take more work home (I know, you usually do; you’re teachers) and there is no research to prove that the work you do at home makes any difference whatsoever. A little bit of homework is ok.  But, in the grand scheme of life, is homework going to make or break a kid’s life?  And what if everyone else at work didn’t have to bring work home except you, because you didn’t really get it?
  • You’ve just been introduced to something new. You don’t quite get it. It’s new.  It’s different.  It doesn’t quite make sense.  Don’t you want someone to sit with you and explain it again?  Don’t you want some time to struggle with it before you have to show anyone?  Wouldn’t it be nice to have some feedback as you go along?  Don’t you want someone to maybe show you exactly what they mean?
  • You have to write a test. You have studied.  You paid attention in class.  The questions on the test don’t look like what you did in class.  You’ve never had to think like that before.  Some of you will relish the challenge but many of you will panic.

We are doing a great job of having high expectations.  It is always good to remind ourselves that they are just kids.  How does school look from their perspective?  High expectations are important; we want to make sure that the expectations are also reasonable for children-children who are curious, anxious to please, have lots of energy and short attention spans.  High expectations, yes; but not unreasonable ones, not ones that we wouldn’t expect of ourselves, not ones that don’t celebrate and recognize that they are children.

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Is Teacher Lingo Good for Kids?

This week I went to an engaging literacy workshop. I had a wonderful time discussing strategies and meeting with colleagues. I came away feeling like I “get it” even better and that is my definition of good professional development. And, I learned some new lingo: ‘Rules of Notice’ based on the work of Peter Rabinowitz in Before Reading. I liked, as a teacher, the idea behind “Rules of Notice” because it helps me, as a teacher, break down reading comprehension, develop mini-lessons, better understand how readers process text. (Here’s a link: http://www.scholastic.com/teachers/article/collateral_resources/pdf/r/reading_bestpractices_comprehension_rulesofnoticechart.pdf). Among the literacy teachers we began to discuss things like:

– should this become an anchor chart?
– should kids know that these things are called “Rules of Notice”?
– how much of this language should we use?
– do kids need to ‘learn’ this?

Over the past few years I have begun to worry about how much of the language of pedagogy is being transferred to students, all with good intentions, and probably arising from the very clear research that states that students learn best when we give them clear learning goals and success criteria. But, do they need to learn the lingo in order to learn the stuff? And, do we get caught up in having kids learn the lingo at the expense of learning the stuff?

It is not uncommon to hear young readers having a lesson on “Making Connections”. The teacher is reading an engaging book aloud and the young readers are putting up their hands every time they “make a connection”. The worry I have is that the students are so focused on the singular task of “making a connection” that they are missing out on the richness of the story. And, often, many of their “connections” do not add to their deeper understanding of the story at all. It reminds me of the time I saw my daughter doing her grade 11 English homework. She was flipping through the novel while watching TV and messaging her friends. I asked her what the assignment was. “I have to make a connection. I’m looking for one. I’m really getting tired of this making connection stuff.” In both cases the lingo of teaching had become the task and the greater point of why and how readers use the strategy of making connections to understand text had been lost.

So how much of the lingo that is embedded in our current practice is important for students to understand? Can a student understand the associative property of multiplication without being to able to name it? Do primary students need to know the term “success criteria” in order to understand what to do to make their writing better? Can I, as the teacher, use the “Rules of Notice” to help students understand text without calling them such? I think so.

When I go to the doctor, I don’t want the doctor to speak to me in the same lingo that she speaks in with other doctors. When I go to the mechanic, I definitely do not want to speak the same lingo, and, in fact, I do expect him to understand ME when I refer to the thing-a-ma-jig that is rattling. And, when I go to a five-star restaurant, I do not need to know all the fancy cooking terms to talk to the chef. Now, one could argue that in all those cases I am not learning the material the “expert” knows, I am only conversing with them. But our students are not learning to be teachers–they are learning to think and create and do at the level that is appropriate to their development.

Learning goals and success criteria do not need to be hung in a primary classroom labelled as such. They certainly don’t need to be written in a kindergarten room where no one can read them anyways! However, a primary class could have an anchor chart titled “What Good Writers Do”. A junior math class can have examples of how multiplication works without labeling it the associative property and the distributive property. We need to begin to think about how to communicate the ideas to students in language that is jargon free and appropriate to their learning.

Educators know that clear targets, examplars, learning goals and success criteria communicated to students will help them to succeed. But, let us not mix up clear communication with rote learning of educational jargon. Let’s remember that they are just kids trying to make sense of the world. We, as their teachers, have a lot of knowledge about content and pedagogy. We use that knowledge to make sense of our profession and talk to each other. We are not teaching students to become teachers. The real gift of teaching is engaging students in discovery and wonder in ways that make sense to them. I don’t think the pedagogical lingo is helping.

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Book Clubs and Non-fiction Text

I am guilty, as a female, of reading mostly fiction.  So when someone asks what I am reading, I invariably default to the novel in which I am engrossed despite the fact that at any given time, I am probably perusing at least 2-3 nonfiction texts as well,  the internet daily, and a few journals or periodicals. On a daily basis, I probably share more about my nonfiction reading with friends and colleagues than I do my novels.  We know as teachers that we need to engage our students in both fiction and non-fiction text.  We also know that many of the boys in our classrooms may gravitate towards nonfiction more readily than fiction.  A friend of mine was wondering about literature circles with nonfiction text and how those discussions might look.  And, as a teacher, how might one respond to reader’s notebook entries about nonfiction text.

As always, I began to think about how real readers (usually me) interact with nonfiction.  We need to treat our students like real readers and give them the same authentic experiences.  When we read nonfiction we are generally looking for information.  So when students discuss that information they might:

  • discuss the cool and interesting things they discovered
  • talk about how their new learning fits in with what they thought before
  • reread any confusing parts and try to make sense of new information or things they don’t understand (often we reread nonfiction many times as we grapple with new concepts)
  • talk about how the diagrams or pictures support their new learning
  • evaluate whether they think the author is reliable (and this is very important when doing research, reading websites, looking at primary sources)
  • think about other texts or places to gather information that they may now wish to know since their interest has been sparked

If part of your literature circles or readers’ workshop is to have students write letter to you about their reading, the above points could also be part of their letters.  As a teacher, it is important to write back as a reader.  When other readers tell me about their nonfiction reading, I usually relate it to things I already know about the topic, questions I might have about the information, and why the person is interested in the topic.  So if a student was reading about hurricanes and had written to me, I might respond back with some comments about the facts s/he had told me, some questions I may have about hurricanes, and maybe a confusion that I might have.  I could ask the student to tell how his/her interest in hurricanes had come about and what, if anything, they were planning to do with this new information.  I might relay some information I had about hurricanes and wonder if it were correct according to the student’s source.  We could even chat about whether depictions of hurricanes in film and literature were truthful according to the facts.

Don’t shy away from talking about nonfiction text with your students just because your comfort level is fiction.  Next time you are reading some nonfiction, think about yourself as a reader and how you are interacting with the text.  That is always the best way to guide how you can help students to learn to be a proficient reader as well.

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Filed under Authentic Tasks, Literature Circles

Open-ended Tasks: Worksheets???

We have begun to have some discussions about multiple entry points.  Given that our classes are not homogeneous, if we really want all students to be engaged and challenged, then it would make sense that students can enter the work at the point where they are comfortable.  Creating multiple entry points requires the teacher to see the big idea which is permeating the lesson and to understand that all work students do, builds on something else they know.  It requires the teacher to know how students evolve in their understanding towards that big idea.

For example, students may come to math with little or no knowledge about solving for the area of a circle.  They may not know pi, radius and diameter.  However, they do know what area is and they do know what circles are.  Students may not come to geography knowing the factors that influence migration, but they have probably all moved, they know about making decisions, they have worked with maps and graphs.

When we are thinking about multiple entry points, it is worth thinking about how we present work to students.  As a teacher, I have spent countless hours scouring teacher workbooks looking for the perfect worksheet or textbook page.  I almost never found one.  Does that mean we should never give out worksheets????

Worksheets are nice because…

…you can prepare them in advance

…they are easy to mark

…kids are generally quiet while working on them

…they can provide good practice of topics learned if I am at the   practice stage

However, there are numerous drawbacks to worksheets as well…

    1. They are  very hard to differentiate.  As a kid either you know it or you don’t.  Most worksheets are not open-ended and do not provide for a  variety of responses.  That is fine for some things but not for others.  If you know all the answers then you are done very quickly without having been challenged.  If you  don’t know the answers then you are simply stuck and probably can’t       resort to what you do know to help you.   Open-ended tasks are much more likely to engage a variety of  levels of learners.
    1. A bundle of pre-photocopied worksheets assumes that you as the teacher already know what the kids will need to practice before they have even begun to learn the topic.  If we are heading       towards formative assessment driving instruction, it is hard to determine in advance how much and what kinds of practice students need.  And the bundle of worksheets suggests  that all of your students will need the same kind of practice.
    1. Often  worksheets provide practice on skills in isolation but not in context.  For example, a worksheet that requires students to put end punctuation rarely transfers to students using end punctuation correctly in their written work.  Students can practice using a formula but will they understand when to use the formula or what to do if they forget the formula?
    1. Many  worksheets can be completed without the student actually having to think  very hard.  Lots of worksheets  require one word answers and, sometimes,  a lot of colouring.  When choosing a worksheet you want to  ensure that deep thinking is required.

When you are determining whether or not to give the worksheet, you may wish to ask:

–          Will I know more about what my students know and don’t know after they complete this worksheet?

–          Is there a more authentic way to get at the same information?

–          Will it be challenging for those students who already “get it”?

–          Will it support the learning of those students who are struggling or will it be “task completed” for them?

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Filed under Differentiation