Friday, April 26, 2019

Differentiating Process Helps Students Assimilate New Concepts

I process by writing. My husband processes by talking. I have a friend who processes by doodling. Often when my husband and I need to process something together, I have learned to say, “Can we have this discussion tomorrow? I need to journal about it first.” In between the intake of a new concept by reading or hearing and the implementation of it, what does it take for you to process and assimilate a new idea?

Thinking about this helped me become clearer about how process can be differentiated in English class. I used to struggle with this. After all, the skills we are working on are reading, writing, speaking, and listening. And in order to improve, one has to practice—reading, writing, speaking, and listening. I can differentiate content easily with different articles or books on a similar topic or theme, or in the same style. I can differentiate product with a selection of prompts. But how can I differentiate process? When I realize that process isn’t the targeted skill of reading, listening, speaking, or writing, but it’s the thinking in between the intake (reading/listening) and output (speaking/writing), then I can understand how I can plan for it to happen in a variety of ways, so that students are better prepared to speak and write about the concept.  

Here’s how it happened in AP English 11 this week. A big objective for this week was to synthesize the pieces that we’ve already read and discussed to form and articulate our own opinion. The topic is citizenship and politics and how we should use our rights, responsibilities, and opportunities as citizens. (This can be even more complex in an international community.) The pieces we’ve analyzed (10 in all) include “The Gettysburg Address,” several modern articles or book excerpts (“The Destruction of Culture” by Chris Hedges, “The Partly Cloudy Patriot” by Sarah Vowell, “The Apology: Letters from a Terrorist” by Laura Blumenfeld, and “Why I’m Moving Home” by J.D. Vance), a poem (“Immigrant Picnic” by Gregory Djanikian), a chapter from the graphic novel Persepolis, Picasso’s painting Guernica, and 2 magazine cover adaptations of it. After students did a 1/2-page journal quick-write on a personal story that has impacted their thinking on citizenship, I asked them to pick one of 3 options for exploring the topic further in a 1/2 page of their journal—an interview, a creative piece, or some research: 

  • Interview: Interview at least one family member about his/her views of what it means to be a citizen of your country.
  • Creative piece: Poem or visual. 
  • Expository/research: Some aspect of citizenship/politics in your country that you want to know more about.

One thing I found intriguing was the unusual proportion of students who ventured into the more creative options. I’ve done this in the past, and usually it’s just one or two. It’s just a journal entry—no need to make it beautiful. We share the thinking in small groups and use it to prepare for our coming essay. This week over 1/2 choose the creative prompt—50% chose the visual, 10% the poem. 

Some did what I intended—a rough pencil sketch on half a notebook page. Others got out sketchbooks and colors! And such variety of styles even within the category of visual representation: charts/graphs, a graphic novel type layout, a representative collage, a symbolic graphic, and a comparison graphic. When students choose their mode of processing, they are more likely to pour their passion into it.

Not only that, but when I got so excited to see all the visual artifacts that I asked if I could collect them and show the class on the document camera, all but one agreed. And though I assured them they didn’t need to present, I just wanted everyone to see their work and the variety of ways of thinking they represented, each student, as I projected their work, said, “Can I just give a little explanation?” So we got public speaking practice out of it, too! 

So by differentiating process as students began to attempt to synthesize all we’d studied and formulate their own thinking, I saw (1) more creativity, (2) more passion, and (3) more engagement with language. Sounds like a win-win to me! 

How do you process a new concept? How do your students process new concepts? How do you differentiate process for your students so even more of them can even more effectively process new concepts in your class?

Thursday, April 18, 2019

My Best Ever Professional Development: Discuss a Book

“Can’t we just keep getting together?” Did you ever hear a teacher request more meetings? But someone actually posed this question yesterday as 6 colleagues and I wrapped up our final discussion of the book Setting the Standard for Project Based Learning. Seriously, when I want to grow as a teacher, I have found the most effective approach is a book discussion. All it takes is a good professional book, a couple of colleagues who are interested in exploring the topic, and about 7 weekly 1-hour meetings. The time commitment may seem daunting, but I find the conversations energizing professionally and socially, and the learning sticks, which means my teaching improves, students are more engaged, and I find my job more rewarding. What's to lose?  

It all started about 10 years ago when a colleague recommended 
Cris Tovani’s book I Read It, but I Don’t Get It: Comprehension Strategies for Adolescent Readers. (I had just complained, “I wish there were a reading equivalent to the 6 traits of writing, because it has revolutionized my teaching of writing to be able to break it down into constituent parts. But when a student wants to get better at reading, all I can say is ‘practice.’”) I ordered the book and read it in about 3 big gulps, thinking the whole time, “Oh, I could do this…and this…and this….” And by the time I’d finished it, I realized I’d just read about 73 fantastic ideas, and I couldn’t remember a single one with enough clarity to actually use it. I should probably go back and read it more slowly, taking notes…but I suspected I wouldn’t summon the solitary discipline for that. I was talking about the book to my English department buddies, and one said, “Why don’t we all read it together?” So we met over the course of as many weeks as there were chapters, each week discussing one of the chapters. It was such a great experience, I’ve repeated it about twice a year since then. 

These are some of the reasons I find a professional book discussion so helpful:

  • The schedule slows me down so I don’t finish the book in a week but spread it out over time so I can work on applying it bit by bit. 
  • The discussion helps me process the ideas and really incorporate them into my thinking.
  • The accountability is motivating: we set a personal implementation goal at the end of each session which we report on at the beginning of the next one.
  • The collegiality is energizing. I can read a book or attend a conference on my own and work to implement what I’ve learned. But when I’m daily meeting colleagues at the coffee pot or the copy machine who are saying, “Hey, how’s that thing going you were going to do in class?” it exponentially increases the ideas and energy circulating around a topic.

All this requires is a good book, a handful of interested colleagues, and the time commitment. I’ll give you a couple of tips about format I’ve found helpful, and then a list of the books I’ve read in this way. Then if you’re feeling the urge to explore a new area of pedagogy, grow in some area of your practice, or foster collegiality, I’d encourage you to try a professional book discussion.

What kind of schedule? What works for me is 7 one-hour meetings once a week after school. We start with 15 minutes to report in on our last goal, take 30 minutes to discuss the chapter, and wrap up with setting new goals. This time I got smart and made a Google Doc where I could scribe the answers (see below). Then to email reminders of the next meeting, all I had to do was email collaborators. Also, anyone could check their goal any time. See below for a template that could be used for any book discussion.

We minimized facilitator preparation time by using a discussion protocol from a previous book, Making Thinking Visible, called Connect-Extend-Challenge (see below). Depending on the size of the group, we did turn-and-talk with a partner, or just whole grouped it.

Connect-Extend-ChallengeConsider what you have just read, seen, or heard, then ask yourself...  
 How are the ideas and information presented connected to what you already knew?  
 What new ideas did you get that extended or broadened your thinking in new directions?  
 What challenges or puzzles have come up in your mind from the ideas and information presented?

I find the best books for a discussion like this tend to be cross-disciplinary, cross-grade level. Though I’ve done some that are more specialized. It’s so enriching to hear the ideas of teachers of kindergarten, middle school social studies, and high school math all at the same table. Usually it’s a book from my summer reading that I want to digest more thoroughly. Here are some of the books I’ve had discussions of, starting with the most recent: 

  1. The New Art and Science of Teaching
  2. Making Thinking Visible (blog link here)
  3. How to Differentiate Instruction in Academically Diverse Classrooms (blog link here)
  4. Better Learning through Structured Teaching  (blog link here, here, and here)
  5. Essential Questions: Opening Doors to Student Understanding
  6. Understanding by Design
  7. Crucial Accountability
  8. Crucial Conversations
  9. Teaching Matters Most
  10. The Vocabulary Book: Learning and Instruction
  11. Productive Group Work
  12. Do I Really Have to Teach Reading?

We know that students need to process their learning—talk about it, elaborate on it, apply it—for it to really stick. Guess what? Teachers do, too. Learn, process, connect with colleagues, and grow as a teacher: try a teacher book discussion.