Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Once again - less is more

Class [Center of Excellence for Adolescent Literacy and Learning] for October 19th was focused on the topic of vocabulary. I had intended to provide participants with a lesson in which they would experience vocabulary instruction embedded in the lesson, and also provide information about different types of vocabulary terms [particularly polysemous terms, which are most problematic for students] and explain different levels of vocabulary knowledge – and relate these to comprehension levels. I wanted to focus on three vocabulary strategies that are particularly helpful to facilitate students’ learning the meaning of vocabulary terms and with which our Teaching Consultants have had excellent success [Four Square, Frayer Model, and Concept of Definition Word Maps]. Finally, I intended to embed vocabulary instruction in the overarching Learning Cycle that we have been working with in CEALL. Hopefully, I will see evidence of attention to vocabulary in their lessons. Well, as they say – all good plans of mice and men . . .

The lesson began pretty well, with participants understanding my emphasis on vocabulary as an important part of instruction. I’m not sure the math teachers understood that mathematics involves not just English terms, but symbols and numbers as well – but that can be made clearer later.I realized pretty quickly that I should have done the lesson – that is, just taught the lesson top to bottom, with out the introduction to vocabulary and the interruption of the explanation of vocabulary selection – rather than getting bogged down in what turned out to be a very fractured lesson that kept going back and forth between a “lesson on photosynthesis” and information on teaching vocabulary. Instead, I stopped the lesson on photosynthesis and showed 4-square, Frayer, and CD Word Map, which I think just confused the issue. In the end, I should have taught the lesson, then gone back and summarized the strategies on a chart [we still need to create a chart that summarizes all the strategies we’ve experienced].

When I stopped the lesson and started giving examples of vocabulary strategies, I lost the participants – folks were nodding off and it was my fault! Because I interrupted the flow of the lesson, participants did not see the flow of vocabulary instruction integrated into a lesson . . . and the lesson ceased to be meaningful; thus, I lost the participants attention. When the focus of the lesson became muddled [in reality I had two objectives that were just not compatible], the lesson fell apart. Oh how I wish I had done the lesson, including having students create the 4-square, Frayer, and CD Maps using the photosynthesis terms, so that participants could “see” how the vocabulary strategies were part of the lesson. I could then have unpacked the lesson and summarized the strategies, and have participants complete some of the strategies using their own disciplinary vocabulary. Why did I make the disastrous choices I did? I think it was time – we had talked a bit about the assessment project at the beginning of class, and about the required lesson reflections, and I had about an hour left to do what would take an hour and a half. As I was planning the evening, when I added the discussion on the assessment project I realized that time would be very short and I decided to break up the lesson in order to “cover more content.”

What did participants learn? I’m not really sure! I had hoped they would learn that vocabulary is important, and that when you teach vocabulary you teach your content; that different disciplines have different vocabulary characteristics; that vocabulary instruction can be integrated into lessons easily, using strategies that take very little teacher preparation time. What they actually learned, though, might be vastly different: that the topic of vocabulary is so confusing that it is one they will avoid at all costs! Maybe if I unpack last week’s disaster, they can learn from my mistakes. I sure hope so.

When will I ever learn????? Invariably, when I try to do too much, I end up just confusing things. So, what will I take from this experience? First, I need to teach an illustrative lesson OR focus on the ideas in CEALL outside the context of a lesson, but it doesn’t work to mix these two purposes. From here on, I’ll need to select lessons [or parts of a lesson] that take no more than 45 minutes so I have time to both teach the lesson and unpack it the topic OR I’ll need to engage the participants in an interactive lecture during which time they create models /examples of the ideas and strategies we are discussing. I suppose it all comes down to the old adage “less is more.”