Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Rethinking Instruction

Yesterday in content reading classes we did the study strategies jigsaw - what I have termed learning to learn. I have read through and "graded" all the reflections and once again find myself wondering if this Jigsaw is the way I want to go with this information. I wonder if the artificial nature of the activity makes it less useful for my students, and if there is a better way - a more economical way [with respect to time] to accomplish my instructional goals. The hard part is that these students, by and large, have already developed their own note making strategies and are good readers, making the exercise "feel silly" for some students. I get that comment every year and wonder now why it's taken me this long to see a different way to do this activity.

One idea I've thought of happened because a student needed to miss this particular class in order to teach his Internship class, an experience that I think is more valuable than the Jigsaw [or just about anything else I could drum up in class]. I didn't think it fair to penalize him because his schedule didn't mesh with one I had made up for our class way back in August. So, we talked about it and I came up with an alternate plan. Basically, he will use one of the note making strategies to hold his thinking about chapter 11 [on study strategies], then find two other students who used the other note making techniques and talk with them about their methods. Then, he will write a reflection about the methods and compare and contrast their advantages and disadvantages. As we were negotiating this, it occurred to me that perhaps I had stumbled on a better way to accomplish my instructional goals with this chapter.

In fact, as I type this, I am thinking that I might just begin the semester by teaching each of the note making strategies prior to the initial chapters - having students use a different note making strategy each chapter, then in groups discussing them. I have a couple of charts they could complete as they discuss the information, and then write a reflection on the process. That would free up an entire day - and would help students in a more authentic way. They would see how I modeled the use of note making and discussion as part of our class - it would not be as artificial. This might also be a way to feature the advantages of some of the methods that students just didn’t see in the present activity. INSERT, in particular, took quite a few hits in their reflections. It isn’t one of my favorites, either, or wasn’t until I discovered how much Mary’s physics and chemistry students liked it. Chapters 2 and 3 in our textbook are particularly difficult – written more on a graduate level than for initial certification students. INSERT would be a good strategy to use with those chapters precisely because they are so difficult.

Another related problem that surfaced in students’ reflections is that very few of them perceived the idea that even if they didn’t like one of the note making strategies, they will have students in their classes who need to be taught several note making strategies so they can choose one that works best for them. Most of my students seemed to think they will be teaching kids much like themselves. At least that’s the impression I got from comments about teaching “only 2-column notes because I really liked that one” or “I’d never teach INSERT, it’s too much trouble” or “chapter mapping won’t work with high school because there is too much information to record.” Perhaps three to five students understood that these strategies could and should be adapted to fit their particular content area and some actually gave excellent ways to adapt them. The idea about putting page numbers on the INSERT sticky-notes was superb! Someone else mentioned that perhaps students could map each section rather than the whole text – a good solution to the conceptual density of many science and social studies textbooks. Another student mentioned altering 2-column notes for math. Perhaps I need to be pleased that a few students really “got it” rather than worrying because all of them did not make the connections I hoped they would make.

So, maybe I've come up with a different way to teach the note making strategies, and do it in a more time-efficient manner. Also, this might give me an opportunity to highlight the different aspects of each strategy. One of the difficulties I noticed as I read students’ reflections is that they are having a hard time understanding where their students will be in terms of students’ ability to read and understand text . . . only one student made the connection between these note making strategies and using a CLOZE or other initial assessment to determine the amount of support students will need to read and comprehend the text. After all, most of them admitted to never reading their textbooks and they all did very well in high school. The most depressing part of all of this is students’ possible solution to this problem – it is one I fear. These students will probably revert to “giving notes” on the overhead, once again doing the students’ work instead of actually teaching them how to read and comprehend complex text such as newspaper and journal articles, primary sources, and the textbook. Giving notes is great crowd control; it feels comfortable because most of these students endured that kind of mind-numbing teaching when they were in high school. Unfortunately, it also impedes students’ literacy development and extinguishes curiosity and motivation in students.

As students completed the Jigsaw yesterday, I began thinking about how I’d handle Thursday’s class. I decided to have them take notes on the first part of chapter 7 – on guiding learning, and figure out what to do during Thursday's class later. I had originally planned to do the Columbus lesson, way back in August, because it is one that makes the point of matching strategy selection to your teaching goals. But this week is homecoming, and ESPN’s College Game Day will be broadcast from the CU campus. Great. I’ll be lucky to have a half-dozen students in class on Thursday. I don’t want to use that lesson for a hand-full of students, it requires discussion, and more points of view are better than just a few . . . but on the other hand, the students who do come to class will probably be the only ones who actually consider using these strategies, so maybe it would be productive after all. I’m getting way to cynical now. All because I realized [even before class] that the Jigsaw was probably not the best way to go – but I had already given the assignment, and was too stubborn to change course in mid-stream. I didn’t want to have students spend time making lesson plans and arrive in class to find I had changed my mind. I’m upset with myself and taking it out on students, which isn’t fair. What’s worse, I know better. At least they called it as they saw it. I’m grateful they trust me enough to tell me how they really feel and think about things in class. Without their honesty, I’d never be able to improve my own teaching. As I type this, I’m tempted to delete all my cynical comments, but I won’t do that because in order to get honesty, I need to be honest with them and with myself. I need to take a good hard look at how I’ve approached this particular chapter and make some changes now. It won’t undo a failed lesson for students this semester, but maybe it will improve the class from here on out. We have such excellent students in secondary education – they are bright, optimistic, concerned about their students’ learning, anxious to do a good job. I want them prepared and confident about their teaching from their first day to their [hopefully] retirement. We lose too many good teachers before they’ve had a chance to find their own art of teaching.

So, it’s back to the drawing board for Thursday – but I don’t think I’ll do the Columbus lesson because I wouldn’t have time to do that lesson AND focus on the ideas in the first part of chapter 7 and that’s what students will be prepared to discuss. I’ll need to come up with a way to focus and direct their small group discussion, and a way to have the groups share their information. The Columbus lesson can come next week. For now, I’ll need to back up and punt – something I seem to do too often for someone who has been at this for nearly 40 years.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Procrastination destination

I'm sitting here, with assessment projects to grade and mid-terms to finish grading . . . and wondering where in the world the semester has gone. I've "thought" several entries to this Blog, but time has a way of slipping away, especially this semester. I've delayed Blogging in order to get papers graded, get power points done, get things done for the Center - and I can tell that I haven't taken the time to reflect on my teaching in writing this semester. Somehow, just thinking about how things are going doesn't cut it, at least for me.

I was not happy with class last week -- in the middle of class, I realized that even I was drifting -- and I hate that. I felt like we were slogging through vocabulary . . . then slogging through pre-teaching. I refuse to slog through another "topic." Based on the What's Working -- What's Not think writes at the end of the mid-term today, I need to rethink some things -- I need to save time at the end of every class to read to students - without fail. I haven't done that as regularly as I should have, especially for the 2 PM class. There are so many students, and everything seems to take so much longer in that class. Also, the math folks are having difficulty seeing how these strategies can be adapted for their content - so I need to spend some time modeling strategies, then put them in content-specific groups to discuss ways to adapt and use the strategies. We probably need to stop and take a look at everything we have considered so far.

Several students mentioned not really liking theory - and I appreciate that. But I know that if they understand the theory, then they can adapt the strategies with much more success than if they are trying to follow some procedure for a strategy. Knowing a few "guidelines" for learning will help them more than knowing the names of strategies -- they'll end up inventing their own, of that I'm sure.

Students are reading chapter 11 using the different note making strategies -- I'm thinking that perhaps it would be better to have them get in Jigsaw groups to discuss the different strategies instead of "teaching" each other -- but I've already assigned the teaching part, so perhaps I'll adjust what I expect them to do during that time. Next year, though, I think I'll have students use different strategies as we read and discuss the text - and sprinkle in lessons I'll teach and unpack with them.

Well, I'll see what changes I can make at this point - these students are going to be such great teachers and I want them to be prepared!