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!

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