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.


Scott said...

When it comes to my content area, Secondary Mathematics, note making strategies seem a bit odd for obvious reasons. Nevertheless, there is much debate between myself, other teacher candidates, and actual instructors on the use of math texts; it would seem that I am an oddball because I think students should place more dependence on math books rather than me as a teacher. This philosophy of mine goes hand-in-hand with teaching self-responsibility (i.e. learning it yourself), the nurturing and preservation autonomous behavior (i.e. figuring out what is best for you can only be done if you are given options), and promoting independent learning in Mathematics. And since self-made notes imply a sense of competency towards any given material, I have to hold note making strategies in high regard.

Anyhow, the point I'm trying to make is that your observations involving students not caring for these methods are not shocking only because many of the students in your class share the "anti-book" philosophy of sorts. As a result, any ideas you try to express involving literacy competencies and note taking strategies may seem counter-intuitive to these same individuals only because their views imply that notes should be taken verbatim (i.e notes taken "as said" rather than notes taken "as read and self-examined").

So with that, my best advice is to make this lesson of yours more relevant to teacher candidates by letting them know that they have a responsibility to expose such strategies to students for the simple sake of promoting independent learning - thus, making the learning experience more about the student and less about the "if it works for me, then it should work for you" type of teacher.

math_tigress said...

I agree with you in that teaching the note taking strategies would be most beneficial at the beginning of the semester. One reason for this opinion is from personal experience. I have never seen the two-column notes before. (I, personally, have always utilized an outline for note taking on content chapters). However, this strategy was my favorite and the one that I think would be most beneficial for high school students. Having been introduced to this method at the beginning of the semester would have given me more practice with it, a deeper appreciation for it, and more time to figure out how it can be adapted to fit different types of classrooms and content areas. I think other students would have benefitted from an earlier introduction of this material as well-- especially the students who are extremely skeptic of the use of these methods.

One opinion that you may take or leave: I found these note taking strategies to not be very useful for me. I am a huge proponent of taking notes and having students use their textbooks more at the high school level, but I do not think these strategies are very effective for a secondary mathematics classroom. Most high school math textbooks only have a few paragraphs of text for each section. Most of the sections/chapters are comprised of numerous examples. Either the students will skip over them (and hence be left with little material from which to take notes) or they have to copy down the whole example in their notes in order to understand it (and copying down the whole example doesn't really do them any good. The example will always be in the book, it's not going away, so just copying it down won't benefit them-- they need to do their own). The only strategy that comes close to being beneficial in a high school mathematics context (referring to textbooks only, of course) is the INSERT method. But the only part of that method that I think is beneficial is the use of post-it notes to mark special examples or important definitions.

Perhaps this is something that will have to sink in in the future when I actually have my own classroom?

A.F. said...

I completely understand where you are coming from with the INSERT strategy. I had to analyze that strategy in the jigsaw, and I hated it along with my group; however, I decided to give it one last shot with my students at Pickens. The strategy made it easy for them to understand how to take notes especially over a particularly tough job of using primary sources. It also allowed me to browse their papers and to ask them questions about the points that they marked with a question mark. For our read class, the strategy was too elementary, but we have the common misperception that we will be teaching students with the same cognitive abilities as ourselves. Until I saw this strategy within the classroom, I had completely written it off. In the future, maybe you could challenge the students to try the strategy with their classes, or maybe I could bring proof or shoot a video of how well the strategy worked to prove to stubborn college students that the strategy works. Thanks for your patience with the "know-it-all" college students.