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.


Charlie Roy said...

An interesting post. I'm glad to see you applying what you've learned in your graduate studies. I wonder how big on an impact student load is for teachers. As a former high school teacher I saw daily 150 students. If there was a way to rework scheduling to bring the number down to around 80-90 I'd argue it would make the task of teaching "critical thinking" to be an easier task. Giving the high quality feedback is core to great teaching but having the time to do it well is dependent on student load.

Penelope said...

I teach on an AB block schedule -- I have about 160 kids overall but I only see half each day. It makes the grading a little more doable but good feedback is still quite hard to do.

I do have some help, though, because 4 of my classes are cotaught inclusion. My partner and I split the grading for those.

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Ed Darrell said...

Hey, are you still blogging about education stuff?

Wondering for the sake of my blogroll at Millard Fillmore's Bathtub.