Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Instructional decisions and mistakes

You'd think that after teaching for over 40 years that I'd have perfected instructional decision making, but never underestimate the impact of willfully ignoring everything in the face of wanting to "cover the lesson." Drat. Did it again.

Yesterday in class, I had structured a "Group Reading for Different Purposes" in order to engage students in processing the information from the chapter on studying and study strategies. OK, so far so good. BUT in an effort to keep the group size to a maximum effective number of 3, I came up with 9 different tasks for 9 different groups. Oh how I wish I could have a "do over" - and simply structure 4-5 good activities, then have at least 2 groups do each one. That way, the groups could have compared what they came up with. Instead, each group did something different and in some cases, what they came up with showed me that they didn't quite get the most important ideas in the text. Strange, but these college students don't seem to have great comprehension themselves when reading the textbook. So - here we are, the groups have finished their tasks; I had them fold paper so that they created six boxes in which to record notes as two groups reported out orally, the rest posted their work on large sticky chart paper around the room. I planned a "walk about" so that students would record the ideas from the posted graphic organizers, lists, diagrams, etc. completed by their peers. I had 15 minutes left in class at this point. I also had two major activities left to go: the walk about and an introduction to chapter 7, which I was assigning them at the end of class. The logical thing to do, looking back, was to have them do the walk about, then assign the reading without doing the full-blown introduction. But nooooo - I had to switch gears, do part of the introduction, then have them totally confused as they gratefully escaped class. Won't I ever learn??

Oh well, maybe they will learn from my mistakes.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

I'm so far behind . . I think I'm first

After such a long absence from this blog, I wonder if I can say anything of substance at this point. I've thought in fits and snippets off and on since the semester began, but have just not had the time to really sit down and post a reflection - and this has been such an odd semester so far. Maybe, thought, I've just been too lazy to sit down and think through my fingers. But here's my rationalization: To begin with, I was in Scotland until less than 24 hours before the semester began - and although I'd gotten my syllabi ready, had my plans done well before the opening date, and after teaching this course for 20 years or more, I still felt so behind. I've been playing catch up since the very beginning. Of course, I didn't think of everything I needed to do before we left on the trip -- so when I got back, with school looming immediately, I decided not to do my usual syllabus quiz. In all honesty, I just didn't have the time it would take to go into the new Blackboard Learn and edit the "old" quiz to have it reflect the new things in the syllabus, like different office hours, projects, etc. To rationalize, I reasoned that these were seniors in college and a syllabus quiz might be too "elementary" -but I was wrong. What I discovered was that going over a few things and then directing students to read the syllabus didn't seem to make a dent. By the time I discovered that students had not looked at the syllabus, it was too late to go back to a syllabus quiz. Or maybe I was just too tired to do that. We cannot duplicate our syllabi anymore because of the current economic situation, so uploading the syllabus to Blackboard or to a website or Wiki or Ning so that it is available to students is the only recourse. I wonder if that causes students to overlook the importance of the syllabus? Whatever the cause, students haven't taken the time to look at or think about the syllabus and I've had to be sort of hard-nosed about the file naming convention, among other things. Oh well, there has to be something I can do to get students to pay attention to the information in the syllabus - but I haven't found it yet. Maybe next semester I'll do a scavenger hunt?

I tried not to overwhelm students this semester with an in-depth description of all the projects, so I introduced the projects VERY briefly on the first day, but waited until they could sort of figure out what was expected to give an in-depth view of the projects as we got to them. For example, the Disciplinary Literacy Digital Essay, I wanted them to have read the first chapter at least, and get an idea of the differences in the various disciplinary fields before we looked at the project. Once we sketched out a chart summarizing the challenges of each discipline, and added a row for them to list/find examples of each challenge, I thought they would understand what was expected. We'll see when I finally get around to grading the DLDEs - which is another thing I feel bad about; I'm so far behind on my grading I think I'm first - I've just never been this far behind.

Likewise, the assessment project would not have made any sense at all unless students had experienced a Strategic Content Literacy Assessment themselves, heard it explained, and then read about it in their text. Maybe I waited too long to explain what was expected -- but I assumed [again, doing assumptive teaching is dangerous] they would read the scoring guide and see the expectations clearly outlined there. HMMMM - some students may still be confused, but I hope not. In reality, they probably won't understand the whole process until they've collected and then analyzed their data - and operating in that arena of uncertainty is unsettling to these students. They don't have much capacity for confusion. Maybe it's just me, but students these days seem to want to know everything they are supposed to learn over the span of a semester in the beginning - and not to actually know and be able to use the information, but to earn an A. I know that many are operating under tremendous pressures of maintaining GPAs to keep scholarships and grants - but the atmosphere of such pressure seems to me to be counterproductive in terms of their ability to tolerate uncertainty. Shoot, if they knew everything they needed to know before they came to class, there would be no need to come to class. Where is the joy of learning?

Well, I set out to reflect on the lesson from today [Bionic Trees] but all I've managed to do is gripe and complain. And that's not really fair - I have thoroughly enjoyed classes thus far, even with a teaching schedule that is worse than I've had in 20 years, which is saying something. I was pleasantly surprised by Section 03 when their response to questions about why there seem to be people who learn easier than others was one that focused on the context of that learning rather than on the constrained abilities of the learners. And the Section 02 initial professional reflections were at a level I expect to see in practicing teachers who have had several years of experience. I can see the results of the junior year methods courses already - and that has been positive. I just want these students to leave my class every day with something they can use in their own teaching - one idea, practice, principle, or strategy that is valuable to them. Because I've been where many of them are right now [wondering why in the world they are required to take a @#$#@ reading course] and because I know that about mid-term or a little after, the value of these ideas will sink in for most of them, I can be patient. So, I think I'll end this gripe session and return to a reflection on Bionic Trees tomorrow, when I've had some rest and some coffee -- lots of it.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

A Conundrum

I probably owe my class an apology – tonight, even though I skipped an activity I had planned on for them, we ran a bit over – by my calculation, 5 minutes, by theirs, 20. I realized tonight that some students expect class to be over in 2.75 hours, whereas I look at class as a 3 hour class. Even with the three hours, I don’t have enough time to do everything I want to do. I have to be realistic, though, and realize that it is impossible to teach them everything I’ve learned about disciplinary literacy – my learning curve has taken 35 years; just not feasible to cram all that into one little semester. So, I need to pull back and adjust my thinking – and for sure be finished in 2.75 hours next time or take a break of 15 minutes half way through the class. Trouble is, I get so involved in what we are doing and I lose track of time. Seems strange to still be so passionate about teaching and learning and students after 41 years of this. But there it is: I am, I suppose, an odd person. I know that there are kids in those middle school classrooms for whom these pre-service teachers can make all the difference, if they choose to do so. I know it is hard work, that it is mostly thankless work, that it is mentally and physically exhausting. But I also know that when you see the light come on in the eyes of just one student, it makes your day.

I didn’t get to the semantic feature analysis tonight, and I’ll probably skip it and leave it until later in the semester – use it once I’ve taught a few more concepts. So, next class I’ll teach a new lesson, probably from social studies, then unpack it – and have them read about preparing students to learn. Vocabulary is a huge part of middle school learning, but I think we’re all about sick of it, so I’m moving on and I’ll come back to the topic toward the end of the semester – as a summing up activity to help them pull it all together.

Wow - Ning rocks!

I am amazed [and delighted] at how this MAT group is actually using the Ning from our class. They've taken over the Blog and are actually blogging themselves, and such wonderful, reflective thinking - I'm sold on Ning and hope that my future classes will be just as active as these teachers are.

I'm looking so forward to class tonight!

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Advice to me: relax and breathe!

OK, here goes: I am thinking about class next Tuesday and trying to resist the urge to teach you everything I've learned in the past 41 years in one night. Seriously, though, I need to just chill a bit - we have some unfinished business to take care of on Tuesday night, and I have to be comfortable with not "covering" anything new at all if that's how things go. That's why I need to just relax and breathe a bit.

Here are my thoughts at the moment about class this coming Tuesday [2/9/10]:
1. We need to spend some time with the SCLA data you bring to class - how do you analyze it? Do you have your scoring guides [aka rubrics] ready to use? I also need to share the scoring guide I'm going to use with the SCLA assignment - that is, the rubric I'm using to grade YOUR work!
2. I need another opportunity to use the List Group Label strategy with you, without messing it up this time. I also want to share with you the review sheet [aka vocabulary reinforcement sheet] I used with my students so you can see when and how I used the vocabulary reinforcement strategies with my own students. Then maybe some of this will make sense to you.
3. We need to make some time for Book Clubs to meet - I don't want to forget that!
4. I really want an opportunity to have you experience a Semantic Feature Analysis activity, but that may be pushing it for Tuesday evening.

All of the above may be just too much for one night's class, and I know where I'll draw the line. That's the secret, you know, as you plan, you plan in modules [and you plan more than you think you'll get to], then you can decide as you are teaching what will actually make the "prime time" and what won't - what will be left for another day and what simply won't see the light of day.

OK, it's snowing out and I need to get home before I can't -- Here's to a great weekend!

Monday, January 18, 2010

Back to the drawing board - again!

I love this MAT class - they really make me think and they ask the best questions. Frequently, though, the questions they ask are ones I wish I had considered before planning our lessons. Today, I probably pushed them over the edge and it wasn't my intention. Had I planned my lesson differently, it would have been much more effective. Some candidates had been in class yesterday for 9 hours - I can't even imagine, except that I remember working in professional development in Eastern Europe, and the Latvians would push for sessions from 8 AM to 11 at night – grueling, but still and all, I was presenting not having to absorb 9 hours worth of information – a very different proposition. Today's class was OK, but not great. Disappointing [for me and for the 867 candidates]. I know I missed the mark. I went through the fundamentals of vocabulary instruction, including introducing vocabulary and then teaching strategies to help students refine their understanding of the vocabulary terms. What I had not considered was the conditional knowledge I needed to supply. Why didn't I? Have I suddenly become senile? I wrote an article on this very thing - and it's so important. But I was so busy focusing on the declarative [what the strategy is called] and the procedural [how to do the strategy] that I neglected the when and why [conditional] knowledge that is crucial. Fortunately, Darryl asked the all important question: when do we do this? So, here is what I need to remember to do next time I teach this topic:

First, I need to use some of the preactive strategies [knowledge rating, morphology, graphic organizers] as I'm teaching the lessons - then I can refer back to the activity when I discuss preactive strategies. I did use a graphic organizer with them, and later labeled it as a strategy I had used, but I needed to take the opportunity to be more explicit and use knowledge rating, for example, because that would have helped the 867 candidates understand where I was going. Then I need to use the interactive strategies [Four Square, Frayer Model, and Word Map] to help students refine their knowledge of terminology we have covered [like ZPD, cognitive flexibility, efferent, and aesthetic] and I need to show them [rather than tell them] how to do it. Specifically, I could show them a Four Square, for example, using one of the terms we have already studied [say, schema theory or semantic knowledge, or syntactic knowledge], then have them collaboratively complete a Four Square on ZPD, for example. Then they could complete a Four Square on aesthetic and efferent stance/purpose -- and we could then unpack the process. That way, they would have experienced the use of these strategies - DARN!! That would have been perfect today. Rats. Well, next time class meets, that's what I'll do - we will refine our understanding of those terms - and I may even use a knowledge rating sheet, too. Hmmmmm - I'd better get busy and do the power point now before I forget all this!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The thousandth time is the charm!

I felt really, really good about today's class. I guess it only takes teaching for nearly a half century to get some things right! The awesome thing about today was that I was able to have the MAT students experience the learning cycle one more time with the Columbus lesson, and experience how sometimes the learning cycle begins at the end of a class period and continues the next day. I hope they realized that comparing the "homework" they did last night with a partner served as a preactive strategy today.

For the first time, the theory lesson went well for all of the theories. I've always been pleased with the schema theory sections with all the experiments - gets students involved and makes clear the connections between schema and instruction. But I've never quite liked doing the kind of activities I've done in the past with the other theories. But today, I was able to illustrate the other theories [Vygotsky, cognitive flexibility, and reader response] by refering to the lessons students had just experienced - and it worked so much better and was more efficient, too. Makes me wonder why it took me so long to figure this out. I've only been teaching a version of this stuff since 1975. DUH!

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Through the looking glass: Seeing and seeing again

Every now and again, my experience helps me to not make mistakes while I am teaching. Weird, I guess, when classes that are planned on the fly go better than classes planned to the last detail. Maybe I pay attention to the students more closely when I am flying “by the seat of my pants” – I don’t know. But class last night went so well, and I learned so much, that I need to hold my thinking [not to mention hold my memory of a good class experience] that I need to think through my fingers about the class.

Class had not met for several weeks – it is a class taught through the Center of Excellence for Adolescent Literacy and Learning, and we meet about every two weeks but took off between Thanksgiving and New Years. Anyway, I knew that after so long a time we would all need a refresher – a review – of what we had experienced and learned, so I planned a few strategies that would accomplish that task: a content-focused People Search, List-Group-Label [LGL] and Semantic Feature Analysis [SFA]. Three strategies for three hours of class: OK – we could go early, I reasoned, if it didn’t take the entire three hour class period. First, though, I had to figure out just what I had done with this group of teachers. Trouble was, with my senility I couldn’t remember!

So I had to take some time to dig up every lesson plan/power point I had used, then go through them to figure out the strategies we had experienced. Good thing, too, because I needed to do that in any case – just for record keeping with the grant, but I digress. OK – so, after figuring out the list of strategies we had experienced and/or talked about, I designed a People Search that asked teachers to find someone who had used several of the strategies and ideas we had discussed. Next, I drew up the list for a “word sort” aka List-Group-Label activity. Then I put the same strategies in a Semantic Feature Analysis grid and created descriptors to use in the SFA activity. A word here about the SFA might be needed: In the past, I had always gotten into trouble with this particular strategy because there are many ways to use the strategies we have learned, and there are NO RIGHT ANSWERS to either of the activities – so discussions and disagreements have often broken out as I have used these strategies in the past. Not to worry – I was trying to review with them and remind the teachers of what they had learned. I trusted that I could figure out a way to handle this – and so I plunged ahead.

The People Search was a good “ice breaker” and helped teachers clear their minds of all the stuff from the day’s teaching; it didn’t take too much time, and served as a way to get them up and moving initially, and talking about the ideas and strategies we have been learning. Next, we moved on to the List-Group-Label. While giving directions for the List-Group-Label, I mentioned that they could sort the strategies listed in any number of ways, that there was no one right way to do it, just that however they came up with the groups had to make sense to them and they had to be able to defend their groupings and the labels they used. I gave a few examples [preactive, interactive, reflective, writing, discussion, vocabulary, etc.]. The teachers got into small groups of three to four for the List-Group-Label activity, and took 20-30 minutes to discuss each of the strategies, and decide how to sort them into groups. Meanwhile, I circulated among the groups, listening to their conversations – asking questions when they needed to clarify an idea or answering their questions about different strategies. Once I had seen that teachers had just about completed the grouping and labeling task, I asked for a representative from each group to come up and write just the group labels on the chart paper [a better way to approach the collating of data than I had tried before]. We then took a look at the labels and discussed their similarities and differences – ultimately coming up with a set of labels that we could all agree on. Thus, we pulled the big ideas together [that strategies can be used before, during, and after reading to help students learn, and that some strategies can be used in more than one phase of the lesson] and I was able to make the point that when you find a strategy that is flexible enough to be used in several lesson phases [i.e, KWL, graphic organizers, Think Writes] they are very powerful tools for fostering student learning.

Once we had completed discussion of the LGL activity, I handed out the SFA sheet. First we completed several of the rows together, discussing the fact that some strategies will have checks in more than one block, and some won’t. Once the group had discussed the three examples we had done together, I let them work in their groups again to complete checking the characteristics of the strategies [I used preactive, interactive, reflective; Assessment for learning: affective, Assessment for learning: cognitive; associated with prior knowledge, develops disciplinary thinking, vocabulary, discussion, writing to learn, study strategy – the last few were added just to help them think of the features of the strategies]. I was most interested in the first three items drawn from the Learning Cycle – an idea that is foundational to the Center’s professional development program. Teachers worked diligently on the SFA, which required a lot of thinking and talking in order to complete it. After teachers had completed the SFA, we began talking about the strategy and how to use it. As I heard myself say, “the real value of SFA is not just filling out the chart – it’s the rich discussion about the terms and characteristics that occurs after students complete the chart.” I realized that I needed to model this – so I selected just the three initial characteristics listed and asked them to look down the chart and come up with the things they noticed about all the strategies tagged as “preactive” – and as we talked about the characteristics of preactive strategies, I was able to guide the discussion to the idea that some preactive strategies are dependent on students having some prior knowledge, whereas others are less dependent on students’ prior knowledge. This characteristic is very useful when selecting an appropriate preactive strategy. If you don’t think students will have much prior knowledge about a topic, best to choose a strategy that does not require a lot of prior knowledge [i.e., one that is not based on brainstorming] OR you better have a way to provide some additional prior knowledge if their prior knowledge level is so low that a brainstorming session falls flat – something like previewing the text, for example.

Pulling these sorts of characteristics out of the discussion of all preactive strategies was a much better way to help teachers see these big ideas than what I have done in the past [an interactive lecture on preactive strategies – yuck!]. We moved on to interactive strategies and I was able to discuss scaffolding and organizing features of strategies and able to point out that some interactive strategies are ones that students can become independent users of [2-column notes, INSERT, and chapter mapping] whereas others will remain those that teachers will use [structured notes, some graphic organizers]. When we turned to a discussion of reflective strategies, we discussed using a balance of discussion and writing and having students use a variety of forms of writing [i.e., drawing or graphing, for example] as they select reflective strategies. We also discussed different vocabulary strategies that promote refining vocabulary knowedge [four square, Frayer model, and concept of definition map] vs. those that promote reflection on larger chunks of content [i.e. LGL and SFA, categories, and analogies].

All in all, the class was much more successful that I had ever dreamed – and I learned a lesson all over again – structuring activities that enable participants to construct their own understandings is much much better than a lecture – even an interactive lecture! This will influence the way I teach the middle school reading class this semester – I’ve found a way to focus on teaching lessons in which strategies have been embedded, then using reflective strategies to help participants see common characteristics of strategies that will aid in selecting strategies for lessons. What a rush this experience was!

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Overwhelmed? 1-06-10

Well, I may really have pushed the class over the edge today. I thought there would be a general revolt when Lisa started her Twitter introduction. Perhaps I have overwhelmed them with all the technology, but the MAT candidates need to learn about the technology their students use today and it doesn’t seem like there has been a lot of technology built into their program. Maybe I should have delayed the Twitter deal until next week – but with 3 hours of class every day, and having to be at mid-term by next Friday, I’m not sure they wouldn’t be overwhelmed anyway. Oh well, I seem to leave out increasingly more of the topics every year, and I’ll have to carve out even more after today, so it becomes a juggling act to include the most important topics and at the same time provide them with experience using a wide variety of strategies in class. What could I have done to lessen the impact of so much information?

I could have delayed the Twitter introduction until next week [but Lisa was only available up until Wednesday of next week, so that might have been problematic]. I suppose I could have eliminated the Twitter information altogether. But that feels like cheating them out of experiences and knowledge they need – or will in the future. If I had delayed or eliminated the Twitter information, I might have gotten the topics scheduled for today “covered” – but what then? I hate feeling that old “cover the curriculum” urge, but at the same time appreciate that there are topics that must be addressed in this one and only literacy course. I know I tend to plan more than I can possibly do, but in all honesty I’d rather have topics and activities I change during class [to model what happens in the “real world of a middle school classroom” when time runs short] than to short change them on a sound foundation in literacy. Trouble is, many of the MAT candidates have developed a “hard copy” view of literacy – they have never heard of the New Literacy Studies, or of the ideas and concepts that accompany NLS. I can only hope that as the semester progresses, they begin to see the place of literacy in their disciplines, and in their own classrooms.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Here We Go Again

Another spring semester begins tomorrow - and this time around got smarter and read the initial blog entries from last spring, thus saving me from making the same mistakes I made last spring - or at least saving me from making the ones I blogged about! We'll see how this goes.

I am going to teach this semester without a book and that feels good to me right now. I'll use current articles from the major content focused journals on the various topics we will be exploring. Hopefully, this will establish a habit of professional reading for the students.

I've planned several activities for tomorrow's class, and hopefully will have planned so that I don't have too much crammed into the class, but will provide a good overview of the course for students. Sure glad I looked at the earlier blog entries!