Saturday, February 27, 2016

1 Simple Way for Students to Monitor Goals

Use an anchor chart with Post-it notes for goal setting and review.

Did you ever have students set goals, determine that this time you will have them frequently reflect on their progress, and then forget? Or the goal papers settle to the bottom of backpacks, and you can’t take the 10 minutes out of class to have everyone find them?

I do it all the time.

I finally beat the system!

This week I made a poster of the options (in this case, the criteria for my group discussion rubric). Then I had students write their names on a Post-it note and stick it by the criteria they want to focus on this unit. Now at the beginning of each discussion time, I simply gesture toward the poster, ask students to remember which criteria they are targeting, and then begin their discussion.

Now if I could just hack a couple of my own goals that easily!

Do you have any tricks for helping students regularly reflect on goals?

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Hands-on Learning Is Engaging

7th graders engaged in reading crayfish dissection lab instructions.

Did you know that a crayfish has 3 pairs of teeth…in its stomach?

This week our 7th graders dissected crayfish, and I got to observe. It was great fun to see students so engaged in learning. Especially since just the week before I’d facilitated a secondary professional development session on student engagement. Not only does it practically eliminate issues of classroom management and incomplete work, but also students learn more effectively, remember more efficiently, and become more interested in learning in general. What’s not to love?

Two 7th grade girls identify external structures on their crayfish.

As I watched these highly engaged 7th grade science students, I wondered what lessons could be applied to other classes and disciplines.

I watched pairs of students bent over their lab tables, pouring over their directions, searching for the corresponding external and internal structures, asking questions, forming hypotheses, and rushing en masse to the lab table where a student exclaimed, “We found a fish in its stomach!” How do we replicate that focus and excitement in other classroom settings?

Two 7th grade boys call on the expert to confirm their hypotheses.

I watched students look back and forth between the black-and-white 2D diagram and the mostly reddish-gray 3D crustacean, poking and prodding. When I asked one what he was looking at, he told me tentatively, “I think this is the intestines.” How can we replicate in other classrooms that focus on understanding diagrams and finding real-life equivalents? It also occurred to me that an enduring understanding that would cross disciplinary lines and recur throughout life might be something like “How is a graphic representation like and unlike real life?”

I watched a student pull something out of what looked like the crayfish’s head. I asked what it was. He said, “The stomach.” He showed me on the diagram, “Its in the thorax, close to where its mouth is, here.” We wondered together why people’s stomachs are so far from our mouths. 

Two 7th grade boys identify internal structures in their crayfish.

I looked back at the diagram and asked, “Why is it called a cardio-stomach?” “I don’t know,” he said. I asked whether crawfish had veins to contain their blood, or whether it just circulated around freely inside their carapace, as I remembered from a long-ago 7th grade science report that spiders’ blood does. He thought it was maybe like spiders. “This is actually really interesting,” he said. That’s one student who will go back to his textbook with even more motivation because he has real questions he wants the answers to.  

The teacher told me that having already dissected earthworms, the students were much less squeamish and more experienced with the crayfish. Still, they’re honing the fine art of following directions, and when they pull off something they shouldn’t have, he points them back to their lab protocol. I can’t wait to see how they do by the time they get to the frog and rat dissections!

Going in for an even closer look

I remembered that when I visited England, as a teacher with many years’ experience of teaching British literature, the castles and cathedrals and history fascinated me precisely because I had a good bit of knowledge already. And then seeing the real thing raised many more questions and made me anxious to get back at the books find out more. Book learning and experiential learning should optimally have that virtuous cycle effect.

I also remembered that when I went to Thailand for a seminar, I had no background on the country, and the sightseeing I did had nowhere near the same effect on me.

So I’m wondering what’s the equivalent of a dissection in any other class—real-life, hands-on application of the book-learning? How do we prepare students for it? How does it drive them back into inquiry and increasing of knowledge and honing of skills? How do we give them opportunities to reflect and up their game for next time?

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Reading Transition Like Writers

Where do you think this paragraph goes?

Transition. Not the most exciting topic, whether in life or in writing. But in life and in writing, doing it well can make all the difference.

Common student misunderstandings for writing include thinking that the 5-paragraph essay is an actual genre, that beginning every paragraph with a word like first/second/third or however and moreover is the gold standard, and that the final sentence of a paragraph must always both sum up the previous paragraph and set up the subsequent paragraph.

I can tell them that these understandings are not true. At least not categorically. I can tell them to write as many paragraphs as necessary to communicate their message. (And if they have one very long point, it should be broken, paragraph-wise, into subpoints. Moby Dick’s multi-page paragraphs would immediately disqualify it from best-seller status today.) I can tell them that there needs to be a logical development inherent in the way that they build their points. I can tell them to look at the transitions when they read articles and blogs. 

They will nod hesitantly with a slightly puzzled wrinkle between their brows. Which means they don’t really get it. 

Looking for an engaging way to get students to really notice transitions in a model, I came across this idea somewhere on the internet (sorry I can’t give proper credit) a year or two ago, and never got around to using it until this week. (One sign of insanity: trying the same thing and expecting different results. Yeah. I finally tried something new.) This is so simple, so engaging, and so effective, I’m kicking myself for not trying it sooner. 

All you need is one mentor essay—whether it is a published article or a sample student piece from past years. Make a copy for each group of students. (I use groups of 4.) Slice paragraphs apart and shuffle. Have groups try to put the paragraphs in the order of the original piece. I have never heard such good discussions about thesis statements and preview of points, transition between paragraphs and logical development, nail statements and topic sentences, as I did on Wednesday. 

On Wednesday, we took about 10 minutes for this exercise at the beginning of a writing day with the rough draft due at the end of the class Friday. After this exercise, performed on a student essay from past years that students had already discussed on Monday as sample response to the prompt, they had the rest of the period to work on their rough drafts, thinking particularly about how to build in transition from one paragraph to the next. 

I’ll do this exercise again sometime with a published article. I’d also like to do it with sentences within a paragraph.

What are ways you’ve used to help students read like writers to understand transition between paragraphs?

More 10th graders puzzle over transition.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Being Writers Together

Look at all these words I've written!

I don’t always write with my students, but when I do, so many good things happen that I resolve to try to do it more often. 

It’s a frequently broken resolution. But one place I’ve succeeded in keeping it this year is writing timed practice AP essays with my students in AP Language and Composition.

As usual, good things have happened.

I’ve learned some things about my own writing process:
  • It is possible for me to sit down and get quite a few words on paper in a limited time when I have to. I normally have a rather slow and painful writing process, where the first draft is like squeezing blood from my brain, down through my arm, out through my fingers, and onto the page or screen. But once it’s there, it’s pretty close to a final draft. I preach to myself along with my students about bad first drafts and just getting something on the page, but I can’t seem to make myself do it. It’s easier when I’m surrounded by other furiously scribbling people. In fact, in that environment, it’s downright awkward to just sit there chewing on my pencil, frowning furiously if unfocusedly at a blank page.
  • No matter how bad I think it is as I’m writing, it’s usually better than I expected when I go back and re-read it.
  • I can come up with some pretty killer closers under pressure, when I had no idea what I was going to say one sentence earlier.
I’ve gained some first-hand insight for teaching about the test:
  • Take the 5-10 minutes to brainstorm and plan, but sometimes the ideas don’t start really flowing until the lead does. In this situation, I can tweak arguments midstream only until the end of the first body paragraph. I can start the second body paragraph with an “on the other hand” instead of a “furthermore,” but once I’ve gotten that far, I need to hang with the idea I started with, even if I’ve started to doubt it. For the test, it isn’t your actual idea, but the way you develop and support it. Switching claims mid-argument won’t score you points there.
  • There are simply some prompts that are easier for some people to write to than others. When you’re the one having a hard time with this particular prompt, that stinks. Write your best, anyway.
And I’ve gained some street cred for talking about writing:
Ideas, arguments, specific support, as well as style—similes, metaphors, anaphora, zeugma, alliteration—among all of us writers, we come up with so many different approaches! Sometimes I have a couple I am really excited about, and then I read the students writing, and they have some I with I’d thought of!

If you have never tried writing with your students, just pick one thing and try. Just a draft. Or a brainstorm. Model your process, struggle, failures, and successes. 

P.S. Maximum student writing, minimum teacher grading is an additional benefit to the way I set up this series of timed writes. We wrote 1 timed essay per week for 4 weeks. Each time after finishing we processed how we thought we’d done, and I read all the papers, but without the pressure—for them or for me—of grading. I just jotted a few comments, both encouraging and constructive—though no more than might be helpful for producing a better timed write the next week. The only grade was completion. After 4 of these timed writes, I asked students to submit the best one to be marked as an AP essay. So they pulled out their 4 essays last Wednesday and spent a good deal of time doing relative analysis—“This one had good examples, but this one had a great introduction.” They also noticed—as I did—that their essays had improved over the course of time.