Friday, March 31, 2017

Great Teachers are Choreographers, not Dancers

My dogs know quite a few words: out, walk, cookie, ball, and grandma are particular favorites.  They acquired this vocabulary through association.  I held up a biscuit and asked, “Who wants a cookie?” and, because everyone wants a cookie, they quickly learned to associate that word with the snack they enjoyed so much.  It is important to note that the concept of a cookie preceded their acquisition of the word “cookie.”

In much the same way, very young children acquire vocabulary by pointing at things and making some sort of questioning vocalization.  Parents then give them a label for the thing.  “That’s a doggie!  Can you say ‘doggie’?”

At age three, my nephew scored off the charts verbally in large part because my sister and brother-in-law brought him to museums and aquariums and gave him picture books, exposing him to myriad items for which he desired names.  He could discern a backhoe from a bulldozer and a stegosaurus from . . . some other dinosaur.  Ask him.  I’ve forgotten most of that stuff.

In school, we tend to approach vocabulary in reverse.  We first offer students a new term—adjective, velocity, transpiration—and afterwards show them examples.  Without a mental model to anchor the terminology, vocabulary has nothing to hold it in working memory.  Students forget the words and what they mean. 

Sometimes we give them several related terms at the same time: conduction, convection, and radiation; comparison and contrast; associative, distributive, and commutative.  Again, without some mental model that allows them to keep each term separate, they conflate them.  If you’d like to see the truth of this, ask a random third grader to tell you the difference between narrative, persuasive, and expository writing.

I have become convinced that a better way to introduce content-specific vocabulary is to provide the examples first.  Let students figure out what the distinguishing characteristic is and only then give them the academic language.

In a recent seminar, a young teacher mentioned that her students struggled to correctly identify common written organizational strategies: chronological, process/sequence, etc.  I pulled together several bundles of paragraphs, each on a variety of topics but organized the same way.  Without any preliminary instruction, I gave groups of teachers a single bundle and asked them to figure out their commonality. 

When I checked in with the teacher whose classroom struggle had prompted the activity, her group had correctly identified their paragraphs’ structure as problem-solution.  She said, “I like this so much!  Instead of me telling them what it is, it’s like I’m drawing it out of them!”

I grinned for two reasons.  First, I love it when teachers see value in an activity I have offered them.   Second, she had unwittingly excavated the etymology of the word “education,” which comes from the Latin educere, meaning “to draw out.” 

I often hear teachers lament, “Our kids don’t have any background knowledge!” when they merely lack content-specific background knowledge. 

Knowing this, we are probably best served by determining what general knowledge can be brought to bear on our content.  Students may not think they know anything about thermodynamics, but they can tell the difference between a large container of water that won’t scald them and a small container that will. 

Instead of giving them the scientific terms heat and temperature and then letting them perform the lab, why not let them perform the lab first?  Let them explain what happened in their own words: “That big pot of water changed the temperature more than that little one with the boiling water, ‘cuz there was more of it, you know, so it, like, had more, I don’t know, like, power.”

“Power, nice!  In science, we call that ‘power’ heat.  Why does the big pot have more heat?”

“Because there’s more water in it!”

“Specifically, there are more water molecules in it.  So, heat is the sum of all the molecules together.”

The teacher I mentioned earlier put together a series of activities to engage students in recognizing text structure.  In addition to having them identify the common organization of several different paragraphs, she created puzzles with each sentence of a paragraph on separate pieces.  Students who placed the sentences in the correct order could more quickly assemble their puzzles.

I checked in with her recently to see how her students were handling the concept of text structure and organization.  She shared, “I had one student in particular say that he finally gets relationships between sentences.”

Over the course of my career, there were many days when I worked so hard in class I felt I should be wearing tap shoes and a sparkly outfit.  When the bell rang, I was bathed in sweat and physically exhausted. 

Great teachers are choreographers, not dancers.  You plan the moves that will bring the results you desire, but it should be your students who execute them.  It’s a more sustainable tack for you, and it is likely to lead to more learning for them.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Why Won't My Students Talk to Each Other?

Earlier this week, I observed two classes, both taught by the same teacher, both sophomore English, both academic track.  The teacher was a recent attendee at a seminar where I had introduced a variation on the Socratic seminar called Socratic Smackdown (MONDAY! MONDAY! MONDAY!)

The first block, which ran from 7:15. until almost 9:00 a.m., was highly engaged, the second block not so much.  Given everything we’ve seen lately about how teenagers need more sleep, these results seem counterintuitive.  If any class should be disengaged, it’s the one that is still asleep.

As a closure activity, their teacher asked for feedback on their discussion, and several students mentioned how awkward the whole ritual felt.  When the teacher asked them to dig deeper into the cause of this awkwardness, one young lady claimed, “We don’t know each other!”

The teacher countered that they had been together for eight weeks, the implication being that they should know each other by now, and the student responded, “Just because we’re in class together doesn’t mean we talk to each other!”

I was immediately transported back to May 1996, the spring of my first year of teaching.  We were discussing Of Mice & Men, and one student made an excellent point to which another student said, “I agree with the boy by the window…”

I was horrified.

“The boy by the window?!  That’s Justin!  You’ve been in class together for eight months!  How do you not know his name?”

The problem is real and, while we didn't create it, it is in our best interests to solve it.   

The Difference Between Regular and Honors

I’ve heard more than a few teachers claim, “I could probably do that with my honors kids, but my regular kids just can’t handle it.”  The implicit assumption here is that honors students, by virtue of their superior intellects or work ethics, are more fitted to academic discourse than their less academically gifted peers.

I’d like to propose an alternative explanation.  Honors students take honors classes, which are fewer in number than the—call it academic, call it regular, call it what you will—middle track.  As a result, honors students tend to be in many more classes with the same people over the course of several years.  They may not like all of their peers, but they know what to expect from them.

By contrast, average students may have a completely new set of peers every period of every day every year, giving them limited opportunity to build relationships.  Consequently, they lack the trust in each other that allows them to share ideas.

In addition, there are very real social barriers that teachers ignore at their own peril. As they get older, student bodies separate according to a series of unwritten and unforgiving laws that dictate where they can and cannot eat lunch, who they can date, whose parties they can be invited to, what extracurricular groups they can join, and how enthusiastically they are allowed to contribute in class.

Unless a teacher has only students from a single social caste in his classroom, he will have to spend some time breaking down the barriers between students before they will collaborate successfully. 

Building Classroom Relationships

For several years, I taught a class for at-risk seniors.  One year, two young men--one was a very Caucasian athlete, the other a very Latino gang member—nearly came to blows a few times during class, convinced that they were mortal enemies.  I initiated a regimen of team building and class building exercises that would enable them to learn a little low-risk information about each other and discover some common ground.  Eventually, they stumbled upon the fact that they both liked girls and getting high.  I’ll grant you, I may have created problems for authority figures elsewhere in the community, but, as far as my class concerned, those two were no longer the source of any behavioral issues (and promised not to get high before or during my class).

If you want students who don’t know each other to work collaboratively, you must first help them break down those social barricades.  Assign them an activity that requires them to find out something about each other.  For example, while you take attendance, ask each student in a small group to speak for 30 seconds on any of the following topics: 
  • What did you do last weekend/what are your plans for this weekend?
  •  What’s the coolest thing you’ve ever done?
  • If you had $1,000,000 but only one day to spend it, what would you do?
  •  If you could talk to one of your relatives who is no longer here, who would it be and what would you talk about?

There are a number of books with discussion prompts like this.  Ones that leap immediately to mind are The Complete Book of Questions and If  . . . (Questions for the Game of Life),Volumes 1-3 .  There are also quite a few websites that ask people to choose between two unpleasant options, e.g. “Would you rather change your last name to Hitler or give up chocolate for the rest of your life?” 
Realize that not all the material in these resources is necessarily safe for school, so use some judgment.

Other Activities

A Google search using the generic term “class building activities” yielded half a billion hits; there is no shortage of material out there.  I prefer tasks that enable the sharing of personal information over those that merely ask students to complete a physical challenge.  Any activity that requires a significant amount of physical contact or closeness should be viewed with extreme skepticism, but use your own comfort level as a guide.  If you wouldn’t want to participate in the activity, don’t foist it onto your students.

Bottom Line

Do some type of team building or class building activity three times a week—more if your students need it—and you will be amazed at the change that occurs in their willingness to participate and to support each other.  Students may resist initially, so I recommend that you participate in these activities and share information about yourself.  You are part of the team, and they need to know they can trust you as much as they trust each other.