Monthly Archives: April 2011

The Silence of Learning

My 7th grade classes have been working on a project based around the early explorers to the New World, from Columbus to Magellan to de Soto. I divided them into pairs and presented them with the challenge of creating a ship’s log, complete with a daily log, a biography of the explorer, a map of the journey and a drawing of the ship. I adapted it from a project that I found here: “An Adventure to the New World Project.”  They also had to research one of the areas where the explorer landed, its flora and fauna, to see what might have returned to Europe as part of the Columbian Exchange. They had almost total freedom to decide how they would create their log. They could use Pages on their Macs, use Word docs or they could handwrite and draw the images. They had a total of 6-7 hours of class and homework time to work on the project.

I put together a list of initial research sites and showed them where to look in our libraries online databases. They also knew that they could use SweetSearch for any other research questions they developed and Creative Commons for images. Then I just let them go, and what followed was silence, hour after hour of focused silence. Occasionally, there was quiet whispering between the partners, or one of them would ask to go to the printer to pick something up or to take a walk to help her think. For the most part, however, they simply worked.

Sometimes they were drawing; sometimes they were typing. Then someone would come for help with research terms or to ask if a new idea would fit in. At every turn, I shifted the decision back to the student. “What do you want to learn about? What other words might you use to describe that?” “How will that add to your log?” My most common response was simply, “What do you want to use to tell the story?” With a smile, though often with a slight look of frustration that I wouldn’t simply tell them what was “right by the teacher,” she would go to figure out what she wanted without me.

It felt a bit like a miracle, students working independently, totally engaged with very little need of my interaction, hour after hour. I wandered around at times, but for this project, it almost seemed to distract them from what they were doing. It clearly made them think about what I, the teacher, might want, and they immediately started asking questions to verify that their work was alright by me. They lost their own assessing and creating momentum. Without me, they were investigating, doing, making. The project clearly had shifted from being my assignment to their independent task.

When I asked them to come up with a list of aspects that they would want to have evaluated for this project, they wrote: independence, creativity, collaboration, effort, commitment. So, I wrote up a self-reflection where they can discuss what they did and the learning itself. I don’t want to take the power of the project away in the grading process. I don’t want them turning over the importance of their work to me. I want them to articulate the steps that they followed and how well they did on each one, as well as to figure out what they would do differently the next time.

Last night, the designated last night of the project, my InBox was filled with emails requesting one more day. Over and over, the student said she was so close, but it wasn’t exactly what she wanted. She wanted to make it show how much she had learned and wasn’t quite there yet.

So I emailed the class to tell them that today’s class would be one more work day.

And it was another hour of silent, focused work!

What was my role in all of this? Was I, as the teacher, even necessary? Definitely! As teachers, we plan and create. We listen and learn. We create a safe environment within which each student can learn. We model learning, and we affirm it when we see it. Student independence only happens when we create and sustain it.

“You Haven’t Been on Twitter”

It is true. In the last few weeks, I have not been engaged with my digital community. I have been busy with family excitement and planning. One of our sons is getting married in June, and there are all sorts of details to be arranged: food and tents, transportation and flowers. While I shifted my extra energy in that direction, I wasn’t really aware of how connected I had become to those with whom I follow and who follow me. The energy I usually directed towards my online community simply hasn’t ben available for all of the conversations and connections in which I am normally involved. From spending time each day on Twitter to taking part in #edchat, I just did not had the mental space to learn and change. That others would notice reminded me yet again of that, while this is a new kind of relationship for decades before, it is nonetheless a real community that we are building.

It hadn’t really occurred to me that it would be noticed, but people who follow me and who read this blog felt the absence and commented on it. Rather than making me feel guilty for my lack of engagement, it made me recognize the depth of the connections that have been forming over the last few years all the more. It is a real “village” that we are building as we talk and share our ideas. We are getting to know each other and to care about other educators as full people, not just abstract resources on the end of a tweet. We laugh and share joy; we struggle and get upset. We triumph, and we fail…together.

As we grow and share together, as we become friends, we are building a community that trusts each other on many levels. We are becoming like an army that can bring about change. In some ways, the time that we spend sharing our ideas and learning from each other is like boot camp, where individuals from all around the country come together and are made into a team whose goal is always to guard and protect its members. We provide the forum for ideas to be tested, challenged and encouraged, and a place to come for support when the road in our individual schools is difficult.

We are scattered around the globe, but we are learning to be that team, working together to create the best learning for every student that enters our classrooms. While we may never sit in the same room, if we take the time to make the connections and share our stories, we can build the community that will support our own learning and provide the best for our students.

So thank you to those who noticed! I will try to be “around” as much as possible in the coming months. Just know that it is for happy reasons that I am more silent than usual.

Teaching Self-Assessment

I am trying to move away from a system where students are working for the grade that the teacher will give them, a system where their goal is to measure up to our bar. I want to stop being the person who knows what is the right way to do each and every task, and where it is their job is to do it my way. It is the model that I grew up with and that worked exceedingly well when the end goal was producing factory workers for whom there was a single task and one way to do it. I was a master at the art of “figuring out the teacher.” It had nothing to do with learning Math or Science or English. It was about how to get the grade.

The problem now, however, is that we are not teaching students who will end up with those kinds of jobs where memorization and rote learning will lead to success. It is our job to train students to think, to experiment and move beyond the old boundaries. We need to take down the fences that surrounded our own education and allow them to test new waters. There is no way that they should do this alone, without the guidance of experienced and wise teachers. It is just the goal that has changed. We must teach them to trust their own thinking and to develop the skills to be independent creators and innovators. Part of being able to do that means that they can evaluate their own learning.

As I was preparing to grade the assessments that I wrote about in the last post, a reading and a writing assessment, I realized that if I wanted to teach the students to be more independent thinkers and to understand their learning process, I needed to teach them how to assess their own work. I had to give them more control over evaluating what they did. So, instead of sitting with a red pen and marking their work, I spent time developing a way to teach them what I wanted them to get out of the lesson – which was how to be more effective readers, annotators and writers. I had to model for them what to looked like to do the task itself effectively. They needed to learn how to ask the kinds of questions that I ask of their work. Do they have control over the material? Can they organize what they know? Did they make progress?  How could they do it better next time?

For the reading and annotating part, where they had read the chapter and identified the significant facts and ideas, I simply did that task, creating a model of how it could be done. Instead of criticizing their efforts, by giving poor grades, I annotated the chapter. Then I made copies with my annotations and will use it as a way to show them what it might look like. Many of them want to underline the entire page, so part of the lesson is to show how a few annotations and words underlined can capture all that is necessary. It will not be for a grade, but for them to make a comparison. I also will talk about the fact that my annotations are not “right.” Each person’s can vary, as long as they capture what is most important and allow the reader to remember what is in the text.

With their writing, I wanted to start by looking at all of their topic sentences, so I created a document that I will project on the SmartBoard that has all of their topic sentences. I didn’t put their names on them, just the sentences. Tomorrow, we will go over each one and discuss which ones present a clear idea for their argument and which ones do not. Usually by the end of a conversation like this, they are beginning to get a better idea of what a topic sentence should look like. With the ones that clearly state an idea, we will talk about what facts could be used to support the idea.

I also copied the sentences from the other class,  and I will then have them, in pairs, identify which sentences work and which ones do not, and how they could make them better, and what facts they would use. Just more practice in reading strong and weak examples.

The final step will be to write a self-reflection on the process. It includes questions like: What skills are you the most comfortable with? What skills are the most challenging? If you had to do this activity again, what would you change about your work? What would you change about the activity itself?

Hopefully by the end of the process, they will know more about the skills that I want them to learn and also about their own learning. My goal is for each one of them to be able to write their End-of-Term comment, knowing their own learning as well as I am supposed to know them. What a powerful learning experience to feel, as a student, that you are trusted to speak about yourself and what you have done and what you find challenging!

Still Teaching Reading and Writing

Teaching students to read with strong comprehension and to write their ideas effectively is an ongoing challenge for teachers. In a world of sound bites and text-speak, we have to work to train our students to spend time with the written word and with their own writing. Reading and identifying what is important in a text takes concentration and attention. And then there is the hard work of identifying what they think about it and finding the words to put it down on the page. So often, the ideas are there, but when they try to write them out, they disappear or seem so much less important and disorganized on the page. I have been trying to find ways to help my students work through a reading and a writing process that allows them to show what they have learned with as much success as possible.

I needed to do an assessment in both reading and writing. I assigned them a chapter to read and annotate. They were to read it first to develop an overview of the material and then reread and annotate it, according to the strategies we had practiced. They were to identify significant facts to help them answer the question that I posed to them. In this case, it was “Why had the North won the Civil War?” When they finished that, I handed them a copy of the chapter and had them copy their annotations onto it, so that I could see their work, but they could have their textbooks. For homework, they reviewed the textbook and created a brainstorm to help them answer the question. They included the facts that they had identified as well as main ideas. Once they had recorded those, they organized them into categories and developed an initial idea for their argument.

I set up the hour long class in this way:

5 mins. – Review your brainstorm and the chapter

25 mins. – Write a rough draft of your paragraph. Make sure that the topic sentence contains your answer to the question and that you support your idea with 3-5 facts.

5 mins. – Read aloud and edit your work. (For some students, this is an important way for them to see if they have a clear argument. They often catch grammatical and spelling errors as well. For others, it isn’t all that helpful.)

5 mins. Peer edit another student’s work. (I collected the papers and randomly distributed them. They were supposed to make sure that there was a clear argument and supporting evidence, as well as check for any mistakes.)

15 mins. – Write the final draft (They did not need to take the advice that was offered. They could stick with their original writing, or they could develop it further.)

5 mins. – Read and make final edits.

I asked the students about the process at the end of the hour. When faced with an hour of writing, they usually get really nervous and concerned and are exhausted at the end of it. “I am just not a good writer,” being the usual refrain. And in truth, not many middle school students are great writers. They are still trying to put together their ideas and find words to express themselves. Finding strategies to help them practice these skills is important.

“I really liked it,” was the general response. They liked having time to plan outside of class, with less pressure. One student loved having the 5 minutes to look over her notes and the textbook before the writing time started, realizing that she had spent her homework time writing out facts and not thinking about them. One loved the reading aloud, saying that it really highlighted the mistakes; another thought it was a waste of time. They generally enjoyed the peer editing time, partly for the comments that they got and partly because it gave them a chance to see another person’s argument.

For me, I liked the variety of experiences, and I also liked the timing of each activity. Rather than giving them an hour to write with no structure, this supported a variety of different learning styles and allowed them to have intense times of concentration and times to talk and interact with each other. It took the strain out of the room that often comes with long periods of concentrated work. There was much more smiling and then focus. A good combination in a middle school classroom!

At a quick glance, the writing was also much smoother. More on that in the next post.