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.”


Sara Holler said...

I have to agree with the old saying too, that "less is more". I am also afraid of trying to do so much with my students next semester, that I won't actually get to see if the students got what I wanted them to get. I am also afraid of getting of topic with the students, because I tend to do that normally. But as you said, if I stick to a rigid outline of the learning cycle, it will be hard for me to stray away from it. Even when creating my unit plan for Methods, I used the Frayer's Model with the students to learn the vocabulary of that particular section. Vocabulary is one of the hardest things about learning science, that is why, we as teachers, need to focus a lot on teaching the vocabulary in multiple ways. Just like you said, learning the vocabulary, teaches the content. It is silly to see how students cannot see the connection at times. Maybe it is because they haven't learned vocabulary in other ways, and only through copying the definitions out of the book. This will be another problem or challenge I will have to face with student teaching, is how to teach the students to not copy word for word out of the book anymore. It should be very interesting, and I look forward to it as well. Also, thank you for preparing me to do my best with it.

Laura said...

I think this is something we have struggled with all semester. Many days we would try and accomplish more than we could handle and often there would be stuff that we would either have to learn on our own or that we did not go over in as much detail as we needed to. Therefore I think it is important that when I teach my students vocabulary that I take the time to do it right. I need to make it clear to them that they have to master the vocabulary in order to fully understand the content and talk about it. If they are not able to use the vocabulary in order to explain the content then they do not have a complete understanding of the content. I particularly like the Four-Square model because it allows students to create a visualization of the word which is helpful for struggling learners and visual learners. It wasn't unusual for us to go down a rabbit hole as it were in our class so I need to be careful about doing that with my students. Hopefully I will be able to avoid these pitfalls next semester.