Friday, June 26, 2015

The Best Listening Exercise Ever

Did you ever wish people would just listen to each other—really listen? Asking questions, trying to figure out why a reasonable, rational, normal person would hold that opinion, making sure they had understood correctly, asking for clarification when necessary? Maybe even acknowledging a perspective they hadn’t heard before?

What if your students could experience this in a given class period? 

They can. In my past 4 days at a seminar for teaching AP English Language and Composition, among the many things I learned was a scaffolding activity for academic argument that does just this. The instructor, Chris Baldwin, called it Four Square.

  • 4 signs posted on the 4 walls of the room—Agree opposite Disagree; Strongly Agree opposite Strongly Disagree 
  • Chairs for all participants arranged in a circle (may be layered)
  • A question or issue from your discipline on which there are different perspectives (from “Is Willy Loman in The Death of a Salesman a tragic hero?” to “Was the U.S. use of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima justifiable?”)
Students begin by standing in the middle of the room. The teacher reads the question or issue. Ours was (appropriate for a group of 30 mostly public school teachers), “In 2000, education rose to 3rd place in U.S. public opinion polls of national concerns. One proposal made in response was that teacher tenure should be abolished. What is your opinion?” 

Students move to a chair by the sign that represents their opinion. (With 30 participants, we had the biggest group, not surprisingly, in Disagree, but the group for Agree was only slightly smaller, and the 2 extreme opinions had 2 people each.) If it ends up that no one in the group takes a position, the teacher may do it and play devil’s advocate. 

Starting with one of the moderate opinions, the teacher calls on one student to give a reason he or she chose that position. Then the teacher asks questions of the opposite group about the statement just made, such as
  • What type of perspective was that support (economic, political, sociological, psychological, religious/moral/ethical, practical, emotional, rational, legal, environmental, historical)?
  • Can you restate that piece of support in a way that the speaker would agree?
  • Questions of clarification can be asked of the whole group or of an individual, defining terms in the question or in a response.
Then the teacher moves to another student, still in the first group, “Can you give a different reason why you chose this position?” To prompt thinking, encourage students to think of the different perspectives—economic, political, etc.—or different classes—anything they might have learned in English, history, math, science, P.E., music…? 

Only after all available opinions have been elicited from the first group, with the opposing group able to speak only to answer classifying, clarifying, or restating questions, does the teacher finally turn to the other side of the room to call on a student to provide a reason he or she chose this position. When all opinions at that corner have been elicited, classified, clarified, and/or restated (not all of these operations must be performed on every statement), the teacher turns to one of the extreme opinions, and then to the other. 

When no one has any more reasons to offer, the activity is over. People are not asked to reconsider their opinions and move chairs if they have changed position. Changing minds is not the goal: Hearing and understanding all perspectives is. Only then can we take the next step of forming a well-considered opinion and constructing an academic argument. 

  • When students may not blurt refutations at the moment of objection, they must take notes to remember what they want to say, and opposing opinions end up being stated in a calmer and more thoughtful way. 
  • No one is frustrated at not being heard.
  • Most people hear a reason or perspective they had not considered before.
And that is a win. 

Can't wait to try it in the fall!

P.S. Absolutely true story: As we strolled from the courtyard where we had conducted the activity back to our classroom, there was not one comment about the stupidity of any opinion expressed. Though the issue was one they probably had long and deeply held opinions on, my colleagues were talking about new perspectives they’d heard. I would make this type of reflection (probably in writing for students) the official closure to this activity.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Disciplinary Literacies: Apprenticing Students in Our Fields

Last night I went out with my parents to see a stage production of the musical Mary Poppins. My husband stayed in to watch game 4 of the NBA finals. I think it was better that way. I just don’t watch basketball the same way he does. We watch the same activity and listen to the same commentary, but we don’t have the same responses, ask the same questions, get excited about the same things. He has read up on web commentary, he talks about team records and the number of leading players injured this year, he cares who wins. Because he knows the history, the stats, the personalities, and because he’s experienced years of playing and coaching basketball, he has the identity of a basketball fan; he’s a basketball insider. 

As teachers, we have the identity of practitioners of our subject areas, which is more than having an array of math, science, historical, or literary facts at our disposal. We read, write, and think in slightly different ways as mathematicians, scientists, historians, or readers of literature. And our job as teachers in our fields is not to pass on the facts, but to mentor students in the ways that people in our field read, write, and think, to help them develop their identities as readers, writers, and thinkers through specific disciplinary lenses. This is the argument of Doug Buehl in Developing Readers in the Academic Disciplines.

There are 3 birds to be killed with this one stone: 
  1. Teaching students how to read the textbook of the discipline in such a way that they develop a sense of efficacy in building knowledge rather than dependence on the teacher to dispense knowledge.
  2. Teaching students how to engage in the discourse of the field—read the texts that practitioners of the discipline read (scientific journals, historical documents, statistical charts, or Pulitzer Prize winning novels) and respond to those texts in discussing, writing, and doing as practitioners of the discipline respond.
  3. This all involves motivation: practitioners of a discipline don’t DO reading to find the answers to questions assigned by someone else, they USE reading “as a point of personal access to knowledge and ideas that can inform actions and address questions” (166). Students who are asking their own questions will learn more, and students who are learning more will hone their reading, writing, and thinking.
Literacies of the disciplines, as it is now called, is reading and writing across the disciplines refined. While there are general reading and writing skills, we tweak them differently as specialists. We all ask questions of our reading. For instance, historians ask who is recounting these facts for what purpose? Mathematicians couldn’t care less, as long as it works. Math and science textbooks rely heavily on students remembering past material and learning the new terms and concepts. Literature completely assumes mastery of technical terms of the discipline (from character to symbol to irony) never actually mentioned in the texts! 

A couple of interesting thoughts:
  1. On teaching students to read the textbook: I remember a high school teacher of mine assigning the reading of a textbook passage and promising a quiz the following day. I’d never been asked to read a science book that way before, and I had to work like never before to really master that content. The following day, class began with vociferous complaints from students who’d found the assignment too difficult. The quiz was postponed, and the teacher lectured through the chapter. I never had to read a science textbook again until college. 
  2. More on teaching students to read the textbook: I remember my first college literature professor who began the second class asking whether there were any questions on the assigned short stories. No hands went up. So he said, “Okay then, moving on to tomorrow’s assignment…” and suddenly many hands shot up. If the rest of the students were like me, they had done the reading because it was assigned, and then come to class prepared to take notes on what the professor had to say about it. We had not been equipped to engage with literature as insiders ourselves.
  3. Building deep and flexible understanding—I love that description. It was what I knew I didn’t have in Algebra 2. I remember feeling like I’d grasped the concepts just by my fingernails by the end of the chapter, so that if nobody bumped me to dislodge anything, I’d probably remember it long enough to get through the test, but certainly no longer.
I’d love to be in a discussion of this book with colleagues from across the disciplines—I need that practice and accountability to build it into my teaching, and I’d love to see what my colleagues would think about building it into theirs. And Buehl really does specifically address each discipline in each chapter, from ways of bridging academic knowledge gaps in each of the disciplines to self-questioning protocols for each of the disciplines (even differentiating between physical science and biology).

How did you build your identity as a reader, writer, and thinker in your discipline? How will you apprentice your students next year into that identity? For some ideas, read the book. Then talk to someone about it. 

I’ll be talking about it a lot this summer.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Prevent Summer Slide: Model Summer Reading Goals

The Internet is awash right now with reading lists and learning activities for kids. It’s summer, and next school year is just a summer-slide away. We all know that reading is good for kids. Putting aside for the moment the research that it is just as good for adults, know also that the best way to get kids to engage in summer reading is not carrots or sticks, but to model it yourself.

What if every kid set summer reading goals? Wouldn’t that be great? What would make that more likely than if every adult in every kid’s life set summer reading goals? What adults can I make sure do that? The one reflected in the computer screen in front of me.

Yup, me. For you, that’s you. 

What kind of summer reading goals? The Internet is awash in those, too. Pick one. Pick anything. The important thing is not the goal, but that having a goal is more likely to motivate us to do something than if we just have a hazy feeling that we should read some books this summer. 

Last summer I didn’t get to some of the books on my list (Dune—the library didn’t get it in time—and a number of professional development books—it appears I bit off more than I could chew in that category, but since I’d already bought them, I’m motivated to read the rest of them this summer), but I also read many, many more books than were on my list—those were just seed titles. 

Here are some of the types of reading goals I’ve seen:
  • #bookaday: Twitter hashtag for the 7th annual challenge, launched by Donalyn Miller of The Book Whisperer fame, for adults to read a book a day during the summer (See her blog introducing the challenge here). Use the hashtag to find a community of support and ideas among librarians, parents, and elementary/middle school teachers on Twitter.
  • Number of books to read in a year: The GoodReads website can help you track this if that’s your thing.
  • Types of books: At this website you can join the Modern Mrs Darcy Reading Challenge to read 12 books in 12 months, and the author lists the 12 types, from “a book you read in your childhood” to “a book in a genre you don’t usually read” to “a book by a favorite author.” You can follow her Pinterest board for “accountability and inspiration.”
This last one intrigues me. It’s sort of what I’ve always subconsciously done (some professional development, a new world lit classic, a book from a new culture, a new prize winner, some YA lit, some nonfiction, something on faith, and some just plain fun for me) as well as what I urge students to do—some fun, some challenge; some fiction, some nonfiction; something comfortable, something new. 

Here are my summer reading goals:
  • Professional development, general: Currently reading Developing Readers in the Academic Disciplines by Doug Buehl; I also have Jeff Anderson’s books 10 Things Every Writer Needs to Know and Everyday Editing: Inviting Students to Develop Skill and Craft in Writer’s Workshop.
  • Professional development, literature: Currently reading So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures (preparing to teach the novel again after a long absence from U.S. lit)—the most engaging literary commentary I’ve ever read.
  • World lit classic: I was considering Don Quixote, from my someday list, but prepping for 2 new classes, I think I’d better stick with course content (The Epic of Gilgamesh, Antigone, etc.); also from my new school’s summer reading list, authors that have been on my radar but I’ve never gotten to: A Palace Walk by Mahfouz Naguib, Miguel Street by V.S. Naipaul (these 2 are 2-for-1 as Nobel Prize winners), and Blue Highways by William Least Heat Moon.
  • New world culture: 2 I have on my someday list from A Year of Reading the World are Death and the Penguin from the Ukraine and Blindness from Portugal (another 2-for-1 here as the author Jose Saramago was also the 1998 Nobel Prize for Literature winner)
  • New prize winner: Dora Bruder by Patrick Modiano (2014 Nobel Prize for Literature)—just finished yesterday
  • YA lit: Looking for Alaska, possibly Maze Runner and The Uglies
  • Nonfiction: Recently read Talk Like TED (thought about classifying this under professional development, as both my practice of and teaching of presentation will never be the same), Just Mercy, and A Path Appears; thinking about The Sixth Extinction and Lean In
  • Faith: Recently read Love Walked among Us and Get Real; currently reading Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God
  • Fun: Recently read The Rosie Project (hysterical) and The Light between Oceans (gorgeous and powerful); want to read Station Eleven
You might have noticed that my reading goals are pretty fluid. That’s okay. The point is not to have a goal, or even to attain your goal. The point is to read. Do whatever will make it more likely that you will read more. 

This week I just noticed that a high school teacher at my new school has his “currently reading” shelf linked to his school web page. Wow! What a great idea! I hurriedly updated my long-lapsed GoodReads “currently reading” list. High on my to-do list for next week is seeing if I can link it to my blog. Then following that teacher on GoodReads.

What if all the teachers at a school were always reading and talking about it with kids and with each other? That would be the best summer reading program ever. I’ll do my bit to create a culture where that kind of summer reading program is natural. 

How about you? What are your summer reading goals?