Monday, August 22, 2016

You may have rigorous expectations, but do your students?

I’ve been sweating over the agenda for a workshop on teaching English II—sophomore English for you civilians. 

I’ve read Fisher & Frey’s Rigorous Reading.  Twice.  I’m going to have the teachers practice creating all six levels of text-dependent questions.  I’ve got a great heuristic device for analyzing poetry.  I’ve got another for analyzing character[1]

For our opening activity, I’m going to ask them to deconstruct the end-of-course test using an activity called List-Group-Label, once again tapping my current favorite professional book, Making Thinking Visible.  I want the teachers to see that higher order thinking skills are not antithetical to the test.

To drive this point home, I even selected the wood floor background for my PowerPoint slides.  It’s visual metaphor: the EOC represents the floor, the least our students should be able to do.  If we teach to the ceiling, the floor will take care of itself.  Clever.  I know, right? 

So why am I sweating?

They say that nothing is idiot-proof to a sufficiently motivated idiot.

I taught high school English for eleven years, and I was clever even then.  I had nifty heuristic devices and graphic organizers and catchy expressions.  And they were all very effective…for the students who gave a damn.  Nothing is student-proof to a sufficiently apathetic student.

When I was a student, I didn’t care about math.  Despite that fact, I did fairly well in it because I could plug-and-chug.  Teach me the algorithm, and I’ll know when I have the right answer.  I was far less successful in any math class where I had to figure out which algorithm to use or—God forbid—create my own. 

Close reading, like theoretical mathematics, is not merely an intellectual act.  It is a manifestation of the desire to understand.  Before students can successfully read between the lines, they must believe that there’s something worth finding there. 

I am an ethical person.  I no longer provide after-school professional development because it doesn’t work and, frankly, it’s inhumane.  I need a minimum of three hours and teachers who are not already exhausted.  It is not enough for me to present the material; I want teachers to use it.

For the first time since arriving at my current employer, I’m concerned that teachers may not be able to implement what I give them.  I can’t in good conscience craft a presentation on how to effectively teach English II without including some instruction on how to build the will of the students to engage with the material. 

 And, to be quite honest, I'm not sure I know how to do that.  I'm not sure I ever did.

I'll keep you posted.

[1] Big ups to Denise Sawyer of Lee Early College in Lee County, NC, by the way, for her assistance in pulling these materials together.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

What if there's no prior knowledge to activate

            Activating students’ prior knowledge is one of those edu-speak phrases so often repeated that it has in many ways lost all meaning and functions only as a square on satirical faculty meeting bingo cards.
The intention is good.  New information can be more readily understood and remembered if it can be assimilated with material that already resides in long-term memory.  For example, if I needed directions to somewhere in downtown Durham, NC, I would ask where it was in relation to Fullsteam Brewery.  I have a very clear mental image of that area and can easily build onto it, despite my nearly tragic lack of directional sense.  I once missed the entire state of Virginia.  True story.
Unfortunately, the places with which I am that familiar are very few, and my map reading skills are purely theoretical.  When I first moved to Athens, GA, from Chicago, I needed to buy a shower curtain, so I called the local Target store and asked for directions.  
The clerk asked, “Do you know where the mall is?” 
I said, “No.” 
She tried again, “Do you know…” 
I said, “Let me save you some time.  I’ve lived here about sixteen minutes.  I don’t know where anything is.”  We eventually worked it out. 
The prior knowledge activation technique that I hear used most often is to ask students, “What do you know about ______?”  And the problem is that many of our students don’t know anything about the topic.  Asking them, “What do you know about Ancient Egypt?” is analogous to asking me where the mall is. 
Actually, it’s worse.  I absolutely knew that I had no idea where the mall was.  Our kids often think they know things when in fact they don’t or the things they know are complete fiction.
            According to Dr. David Sousa, author of How theBrain Learns among other titles, we tend to remember best the first and last things presented to us in a learning session.  That means students need to receive only correct information initially.  The use of the above technique or the much-beloved KWL chart may explain why students give those same wrong answers on the end-of-unit test, despite weeks of instruction.
            It may be more useful to plan your lessons with an eye toward creating a schema, as opposed to activating prior knowledge.  Consider, for example, Ancient Egypt.  Rather than asking students what they know, present them with an image like this one.  Better yet—give them an assortment of images. 
Now ask them simply to observe: “What do you see?” This can be done individually, in small groups, or as a whole class.  Make certain to limit students’ contributions at this point to what is objectively present in the image.  No interpretations or value judgments just yet.
When students have exhausted their observations, ask them, “Based on what you see, what do you think is going on?” 
Finally, ask students to consider what questions persist for them.  “What are you still wondering about?”
This activity, called See-Think-Wonder, is taken from the superb book Making Thinking Visible,  I like that it allows students to craft an accurate mental framework on which to attach the material they will be studying.  Later in the unit, the teacher can refer back to the images rather than spending a great deal of time explaining a concept.  Because the students were allowed to ponder the images for a considerable amount of time, they are apt to be remembered and serve as useful shorthand. 
Perhaps more importantly, it presents academic material as a puzzle to be solved.  Cognitive psychologist Dan Willingham, author of Why Don’t Students Like School?, explains that people like puzzles and will keep at them provided they believe they have a reasonable chance of success. If you have ever persisted at a difficult crossword or Sudoku, you know this is true.