Saturday, September 28, 2013

Student Feedback: Just Ask

Do you want to know how helpful your students perceive the learning activities you plan for them? Here’s a secret: Ask them.

On Friday, I asked students to respond to 2 questions: 
  • Of everything we did in class this week, what was most helpful to your learning? 
  • What was least helpful to your learning?

The biggest surprise? The 6 activities mentioned more than once had votes on both the most helpful and the least helpful side. Small group discussion, which we did frequently, had overwhelmingly positive feedback (26-7). However, everything else had nearly equal votes (in order of total number of mentions, positive and negative): small group discussion, reading comprehension quizzes, whole group discussion, 30-second impromptu presentation with responses, vocabulary quiz, reading response journal. 

This shows me a couple of things. First, it confirms that I have pretty good variety of and priority in classroom activities for a diversity of learning styles. One student found both small group and whole group discussions unhelpful, and benefitted most from the vocabulary quiz. I bet I can name that Myers-Briggs personality profile within one letter! Another could articulate that she found the small group discussions most helpful and the whole group discussion least helpful because she prefers smaller groups. My next step needs to be differentiation by offering choice.  

It also confirmed that students are primed for a mini-lesson on contributing to positive group dynamics. The ones who identified reasons for finding the small group discussions helpful gave all the reasons I emphasize this mode of learning. One student wrote, “I really felt comfortable asking questions, and it was easier for me to share my thoughts.”

The reasons given for small group discussions being least helpful were common dysfunctions of small groups: “Depends on the group--I often get sidetracked.” “It seemed redundant.” “No one really talked.”

Some of the best ideas for the mini-lesson could well come from 3 students’ positive responses to one day’s variation on the small group discussion: a 30-second impromptu presentation of a significant thought from your reading response journal, followed by 15-second responses to the 30-second presentation by each of the other 3 group members. Here are their responses:
  • This helped me extract essential detail from what I thought.
  • Being in a group that responded and all had ideas, who weren’t joking around. 
  • It...also gave opportunity to listen to others’ insights much more efficiently than what was done previously.
Just a note: Each of the above 3 students also listed something about the regular small group discussions as least helpful.

Probably most importantly, I learned that students can be trusted to respond to the question asked (most/least helpful) without turning it into a popularity contest. I thought they’d all hate the reading comprehension quizzes, but those, too, were split. One student wrote, “It made me think more.”

Yes, asking students what they find most/least helpful is a bit of a blinding flash of the obvious. (My husband calls it a BFO.) But I’d read McTighe and Wiggins’s suggestion for soliciting student feed back and thought it a good idea my first 2 times through Understanding by Design, so my third time through, this week, with my English and social studies department colleagues, I told them to ask me at our next meeting whether I’d done it. 

So colleagues--thanks for the accountability. I did it. And I’ll do it next Friday, too.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Of Debate, Geese, and the Gander

Those who know me well have my full permission to guffaw at the idea of me coaching debate. I'm doing a little guffawing myself. Harmony-loving, confrontation-adverse, zero-experience me? 

When I coached volleyball, I brought to it years of experience with the sport and with being coached. When I started teaching, I brought to it years of experience with learning and with being taught. When I volunteered to coach debate at the beginning of this school year, I brought only the conviction that if there are students so interested in spending their free time practicing research and civil discourse (two things that seem sadly lacking in current American political life and in online interactions) that they are asking me to please coach them--why would I refuse them the opportunity? (An opportunity unavailable to them for the last several years.) 

(Also, as the English-teacher chair of my school’s joint English/social studies department, I’ve been aware that my lack of knowledge about this form of public speaking which I’m requiring my social studies colleagues to teach and assess in their classes is not an asset to my leadership. Here’s a way to corner myself into mastering something that will improve my professional credibility.)

At the initial meeting of debate coaches in our league, not only was I the only woman present in a group of nine, but also I found myself, when I dared open my mouth, asking such very basic questions as, “How many people are on a debate team?” (Answer: three.) Did I feel self-conscious and out of my depth? A little.

So I spent most of the meeting finding the Queensland Debating Union Handbook online. (That was after I’d asked what style of debate we used.)

How could I not be excited about that handbook’s statement of the aim of debating?
  • The ability to communicate with clarity, confidence, and fluency.
  • The enjoyment of teamwork and friendly competition.
  • Informed understanding of issues.
  • Tolerance which admits the validity of other points of view.

How could I not be excited that 12 students expressed interest? (And here I was wondering if we were going to have the three necessary to field one debate team!)

How could I not experience mild terror when I can’t even answer their questions about when, where, how, and how often we’re going to meet to practice?

But reading the 85 pages of that handbook (and plenty of other information the very supportive chair of the debate coaches’ meeting emailed out), I thrill all over again at the life skills I’ll get to help students practice. And at the fact that there are 12 students at school who want to practice them. (And at the helpfulness of the handbook in spelling out exactly how to structure team preparation and teach those skills.)

So I’ll be doing a lot of reading up on debate between now and December when the debate season starts. But, hey, I’m an English teacher--I should be good at research and reading. Forget the “Unlearn and Relearn” parts of my blog name--this is just plain learning. A little scary to think the students to whom I teach what I learn will then be judged in public competition. 

But a little challenge and real-life accountability is good for the soul. At least, that’s what I tell my students. I’ll report back some time in the winter and let you know if it’s true.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

What Is Homework For?

What is homework for?

Growing grunt muscles? Weeding out the uncommitted? Impressing students with the seriousness of a class? Filling hours students cannot be trusted to fill wisely themselves? Seeing who has good time management skills?

An associated question: What is home for? 

The discussion rages on, fueled by recent research against homework contradicting decades of research before that in support of homework. In these cases, the answer often lies in common sense--as long as it is purposeful, doable, and an appropriate amount. 

Providing significant time to work on reading and writing in class is one thing I've recommitted myself to doing as a result of several divisional meetings focusing on a discussion of homework policy. This gives me the chance to monitor students’ as they use skills, to answer questions students have when getting started, and to train in time-management.

This week, as we have started reading the novel Cry, the Beloved Country, I consciously worked to provide 10-20 minutes at the end of each class to start on the next day’s reading assignment--approximately 20 pages and a journal for holding thoughts. 

I have to admit that preserving this time lost urgency for me a couple of years ago when students made poor use of the time. Tired of fighting with them, I asked, “So you would really rather use your time at school to talk and do all the reading at home?” They said, “Yes.” So I said, “Then I’ll structure the conversation for learning and not worry about preserving reading time.” They were fine with that. Now I’m not so sure I should have let them make that decision. After all, who’s the responsible adult here?

Here are some of the benefits I’ve seen this week from giving students class time to start the reading assignment:
  1. Training for students in moving quickly into reading mode from discussion mode.  (I think some are surprised at how much they can get done in 10 or 20 minutes.)
  2. Questions students are able to ask as I circulate around the room while they read. (Why are the chapters grouped into Book 1, Book 2, and Book 3? What is Kumalo afraid of here?)
  3. Observations on which students exhibit behaviors of strong readers (like frowning over text--got this tip from Kelly Gallagher and now I can tell my husband to stop laughing at my furrowed brow when I read) and which ones never turn a page and might need more support.
  4. Coping strategies offered to students who fall asleep when reading: “Do you need to get a drink? Wash your face? Stand up?”

Students still bring reading home--with as significant a correlation as there is between reading and writing facility, vocabulary growth, general knowledge, college success, and even income level after that, this is a worthwhile use of homework time. But when students take it home, they are well-started and know what concentration feels like. And I have information about how I can help them even more the next day.  

Friday, September 6, 2013

Hygiene for Your Writing

If I were to stand in front of class with a giant green thing stuck between my teeth, it wouldn't matter if were the wisest teacher in the world giving my students an insight that would change their lives, they wouldn't hear a thing. The first thing they would say to each other when they burst into the hall after class is “Did you see that big green thing stuck between her teeth? Do you think she knows it’s there? That was so gross!” 

Students unanimously agree when I pose this hypothetical story on the first editing day of the year. 

Writing is like that, too. If your writing has misspelled words, lower case “i” pronouns, and punctuation errors, it doesn’t mean you are not intelligent and don’t have important insights to share. But it does mean people will be so distracted by the surface that they won’t be able to hear those important insights. Editing is simply hygiene for your writing--brushing its teeth, washing its face, combing its hair, and putting on its deodorant so that nothing will cause people to judge your ideas before they’ve really heard them.

If that’s what editing is, then editing tools are the toothbrush, washcloth, comb, and deodorant. Here’s the tools I introduced this Thursday:
  • Familiarity with the grammar-checking capabilities of your word processing program. It is just a dumb machine, and you are smarter than it, but at least start with hearing what it has to say--then you can decide whether its advice is correct or not. My students’ Apple laptops come with Pages installed. Most knew the green underline meant a grammar error, but they didn’t know how to find out what the machine thought was wrong with the underlined words. No wonder I get electronic papers from good students where I just repeat the computer comment on underlined words. Redundant...Passive... Now you can find out yourself: Hover your cursor over the words in question, and the computer’s complaint pops up.
  • Instruction in creating an MLA template, complete with correct page size (that’s A4 here in Japan), running page numbers, header, centered title, double spacing, and automatic paragraph indentation. (On the “work-smarter-not-harder” principle.) 
  • Mandatory bookmarking of the OWL Purdue MLA Formatting and Style Guide page. (On the “give-a-man-a-fish” principle.)
  • Practice in reading like a writer. This week we pulled out the literature piece we had just read, inductively reviewed the rules for punctuating direct quotation, then checked the paper for them.
  • Tips for careful proofreading: To force yourself to see what’s on the paper (rather than what you know you meant to say)--read out loud, read with another piece of paper under each line, and get someone else to read it. 
And there’s one more tool: a sense of humor. That’s why I wore my editing t-shirt, which reads as follows: 

Let’s eat Grandma.
Let’s eat, Grandma.
Commas save lives.

But a sense of humor isn’t only an editing tool--it’s a life tool--don't just save it for editing day.