Friday, September 18, 2009

Make them Think

One of the great things about planning for this school year was going back through my various journals, notes and so on from the last couple of school years. It was fun to see notes to myself to try ideas that I had done last year, and had made work. I really got a sense of making actual progress in my teaching skills over the last couple of years.

Last year the big thing was trying the History Alive! style notebook and really focusing on having a transformative/higher-level thinking activity to go with every topic. It is a pain to grade, as I was expecting, but the insights into what the kids actually understand have been so useful that it's worth it. So this year the big change has been focusing on making them think, including making them think about how they learn. I know, crazy, expecting self-awareness and metacognition from 10th/11th graders!

(Pause for a moment to imagine a classroom where "that's so meta" jokes can actually be made.)

There's a lot of issues rolled up in "make them think". It starts small -- refusing to answer questions that amount to "tell me what to do because I'm too lazy to read directions/look at the board" and instead pointing at the directions. Getting out of the habit of going over reading questions & giving answers but still finding ways to discuss the information with the class. Making them offer opinions and back them up.

Then we get to doing things like giving regular learning log assignments that amount to asking them to reflect on how various class activities affect their learning, what they're doing, and what they could do better. I am loving those! It is so fascinating to see students' varied opinions of themselves as students, where they're happy, where they struggle, and what they think of all my crazy activities. I leave comments here and there -- encouraging, offering suggestions, pointing out what they do well, asking for clarification. It gives me a chance to give detailed feedback that's not tied to a grade*, and also to hear a little more from my shy students and introverts.**

Here's a great example -- today in US History they worked in partners to rewrite a section of the Declaration of Independence in their own words and we posted them on a wall and did a Gallery Walk. Afterwards, I asked them to reflect on what they learned from the activity, what grievances seemed the worst to them, and whether the colonists were justified in declaring independence. I only got to read a few of the entries so far but they were very interesting. It shows you pretty quickly who is taking things seriously and who isn't, too. Sometimes the kids who would seem to be keeping up because they're good at getting the right answers from someone get revealed by the lack of depth in their answers.

Another example is that in World History I had them complete a Study Skills checklist survey a couple of weeks ago and make a study goal. I told them to make sure the goal was realistic, something they could achieve for the next few quizzes. Today I handed back their third quiz and asked them about how they're doing towards the goal. One student asked "Do you want the real truth?" I said "Of course." "Well, it's just that I know some teachers have an attitude of what I don't know doesn't hurt me." "Not me." "So I can put that I studied during watching 300 and didn't really learn a lot?" "Yup." That conversation is important to me because I want my students to see that I'm not doing this so they can write what I want to hear to get brownie points.

Another learning log that I had them do was when they got their notebooks back after the first check at the end of Unit 1. Since I have very specific and somewhat unusual expectations, I knew from the beginning that some students would need help meeting them. Some also need to realize that I'm serious about them -- you can tell them all you like your expectations the first week of school but if they don't see results (grades, reinforcement) from them they'll forget all about them. So after I handed back their notebooks I asked them to look through, read all the comments along with the grades and answer a few questions about it.

You get the idea. It was rather insane when I needed to grade all their notebooks at the end of the unit. I'm working on figuring out how to stagger it a little bit. It also didn't all go smoothly -- I have one class with some serious attitude and students who despite it all couldn't understand why they got an F.***

* In reading through the research for grad school last year I learned that one of the key things to making formative assessment work is detailed, useful feedback. However, research also shows that many students will ignore feedback if a grade is also given and just look at the grade. So giving feedback w/o grades becomes important.

** As hard as you try, some students talk more in class and some sit there quietly, doing what they should but not giving you any indication of what goes on in their heads.

*** Still trying to figure out how to deal with a certain attitude. These are the ones that complain every time we do anything that smacks of work, and everything is work to them. They take bad grades as a personal affront even when I can point to a clear rubric handed out Day 2 and where they fit on it. They think it's ok to shout complaints across the classroom and don't get why I ask them to wait and speak to me privately. So far my strategies involve being calm, polite and reasonable no matter what they say and making sure I've CYAed with clear expectations.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Ahh, Research

I'm taking a break from the thinking-in-circles my research paper for grad school has become. A bit of context, since I haven't written much about it: this is the final paper summing up my semester-long research project on formative assessment and remediation. It's due in a week, and I present on it two days after that. I have the claims I had already figured out about halfway through, but I'm looking at the rest of my data and going "uhhhh...." right now. Lots of patterns, bits of ideas, but I'm not sure any of it makes another solid claim. Blegh.

While taking a break, I've been catching up on my edu-blogs a bit. I'm sad to see that Dan Meyer has decided to go PhD and stop teaching, although I'm sure it's the right move for him. Still, a lot of my experimenting with assessment this year is owed to his insightful rants on How Math Must Assess. Of course, I have to go in very different directions with what I do, history being rather different than math. :)

I also ran into this post that's worth spreading: How Will We Survive?
"My library has already been cut. We will have no bookroom clerk, making novels almost an impossibility and replacement costs much higher than previous years for sure. We will lose one adviser, the person we send students to when they are problematic. We will have a total of fifteen more students each day, meaning that we’ll teach five and a half classes for the same pay as we usually get for teaching just five..."
It's not quite that bad around here, but we will be losing staff, gaining kids, and considering the drama that already exists around copies I can't wait to see what happens next year with reduced budget. Still, I find myself hopeful about next year. All those problems will just be little obstacles, and I'll be too busy worrying about giant finishing grad school project & really getting to grips with my problems with classroom management to focus on copy room drama.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

A Mathematician's Lament

I recently came across this fascinating article about everything that's wrong with math education according to Paul Lockhart. (Click through and read the pdf, I promise, it's worth it.)

He starts with the idea of what music or art classes would be like if taught as math is:
"A musician wakes from a terrible nightmare. In his dream he finds himself in a society where music education has been made mandatory. “We are helping our students become more competitive in an increasingly sound-filled world.” Educators, school systems, and the state are put in charge of this vital project. Studies are commissioned, committees are formed, and decisions are made— all without the advice or participation of a single working musician or composer.

Since musicians are known to set down their ideas in the form of sheet music, these curious black dots and lines must constitute the “language of music.” It is imperative that students become fluent in this language if they are to attain any degree of musical competence; indeed, it would be ludicrous to expect a child to sing a song or play an instrument without having a thorough grounding in music notation and theory. Playing and listening to music, let alone composing an original piece, are considered very advanced topics and are generally put off until college, and more often graduate school."
This goes on for a few pages before he gets into the real rant. His main point is that math is actually as creative an endeavor as art or music or history or anything else generally recognized to be interesting and creative, yet we teach it as something to memorize and practice and kill most students' interest in it. I think there are some elements of his argument that could be critiqued, but he does have some valid points.

It certainly appeals to the part of me that never remembered formulas but did remember the principles the formulas were based on, and would re-derive them all on the test because that was more fun than memorization. His "real" description of the standard math courses seems pretty accurate, especially in judging the utter uselessness of Algebra II and PreCalc. (Do you know how many definitions of limits we had to learn? Me either, but it was a lot. Why? We never used them in Calc.) Despite all that, I enjoyed math, because solving a problem is fun, an interesting challenge, and has a definite end-point. This is a much-needed break when you're also writing papers, themes and doing research--there's always more research you could do, more editing you could give that paper. At least, that's how I feel: I'm never done with a writeen assignment until I turn it in, and even then I'm only turning it in because it's due now.

Anyway, I started to write because I could take a lot of his points and apply them to history. As I've mentioned, I don't actually think that the point of learning history is to learn a set of facts. Especially not the set of facts currently contained in the curriculum, which are heavily political history biased, as well as being heavily biased in general. Facts without context are useless. (A problem he has with formulas, heh.)

Context isn't the whole problem though--I don't really want my students to learn history because I think they need to know everything that ever happened, or even certain important events that happened. I want my students to learn to do history: to analyze primary sources, to go digging for information, to construct narrative around a pile of facts, to argue interpretations of said pile of facts, to wrestle with deeper questions of morality and human nature and to think. Lots of thinking. Just as Lockhart wants his students to discover math for themselves, I feel that the most valuable history is that which you discover for yourself.