New Favorite Reading Handout

This week, I was browsing one of my favorite websites for resources, the Greece Central School District’s Tools for Reading Writing and Thinking (many sources are from Jim Burke but others are collected from various sources) and each is well explain, often incorporating models.

I came to the BDA (Before, During, and After reading) handout called “Reciprocal Teaching” [the link has a nice explanation, clean handout, and even more links and tools along the left side if this one doesn’t suit your fancy!] Students groaned when they saw those words on the daily activities menu for the day, “Reciprical teaching? What is THAT?” 🙂 Aren’t they cute?

After we worked through the reading from the night before as a class and came up with three examples for each category on the Smart Board (which we are all still adjusting to writing on – it takes a while to write legibly), students seemed a little calmer. Then I went through each category and asked how it could be a useful reading strategy. I encouraged students to look for ways it could benefit them (be relevant where they are) by referencing science and history text books and reading questions on the ACT. They seemed to understand that these helped to keep the reader engaged and interacting with the material which would help with both comprehension and retention. Then I numbered them off at random and assigned each category to a corresponding number so they would be able to form groups. They were to fill out only ONE column/strategy for the reading assignment that night [we are reading Their Eyes Were Watching God].

Most of the students did the work and when they formed groups containing each element/category for discussion, it went fairly well. I’m still working on encouraging students to want to discuss rather than just copy down because they think it’s the most efficient way to recieve full credit, but that is a blog for another day. Then we shared highlights from each category as a class which allows me a few minutes to check for understanding, clarify points of confusion, and bring out deeper questions or issues that may have been ignored.

I did take a break from giving daily quizzes while we were working with this handout (for four consecutive days – still debating if this is the ideal use, though it allowed every student to experience each category) but I would not suggest replacing quizzes with this strategy. I will say I generally give open book quizzes with open ended questions though I know this can be problematic as well. You can’t always beat the Sparknotes kids and it makes for an unpleasant and exhausting game. I may have to return to the English Companion Ning to further discuss and contemplate simpler strategies to ensure that we are not punishing kids who read while rewarding kids who Sparknote. (Yeah, I used it as a verb AND an adjective in this paragraph!)

Ultimately, I was asking the students how they felt about this handout and I got a good response. It was not exciting or fun, but they said that it did help them understand and stay focused and it didn’t feel like busy work. Compared to some of the strategies I’ve come across, I take that as high praise!! I’m not sure how often it could be used, and I think each category should be explicitly taught previously ONE at a time, but it’s a definitely a keeper and I thought it was much simpler and more flexible than a lot of the lit circle handouts I’ve come across.

Thanks for listening and sorry for being overly chatty! I’m on day 3 of a flu bug, mostly consisting of a ridiculous fever that will not leave me alone and I’ve been alone in my room (sparing my family the germs) the whole time. If you have had a positive experience with any specific strategies, I would LOVE to learn about them , even if you just link to a blog post! THANKS! 🙂


Collaboration and Cooperative Learning

A recent conversation with a fellow educator has me wondering what is really different between these two frequently dropped buzz words. When I think of the term ‘cooperative learning’, I think about my experiences as a student. I think about being grouped with students who didn’t care so I could “help” them learn. I remember feeling like the teachers were using me to supplement their teaching. What I don’t remember is feeling like I benefited and while my partners may have seen a positive effect in their grades, I’m not convinced they learned more.

I will confess something here and now. After tinkering with different types of intentional grouping for projects, I have elected to let students group themselves. They tend to group homogenously based mostly on motivation but within every group there are still lower ability and higher ability students. They generally find ways to each contribute and play to one another’s strengths. I truly enjoy watching this process and it was not this way when I chose the groups. The resulting products are sometimes amazing, or for less motivated groups, certainly lackluster. But even those less motivated groups had to work toward finishing the product and I genuinely believe that they learned more from the process of doing it themselves than they would if they had a type A student (or type A teacher…) delegating the work.

I have been known to establish roles but students choose roles that suit them in these cases. I do not like to assign who does what. I must admit that I do group intentionally for when we work together in small groups on smaller tasks. I tend to consider this to be collaboration rather than cooperative learning. Often this is when they are brainstorming or reading and analyzing a small piece of literature or a poem.

I suppose my thought is that collaboration is about bouncing ideas off of others to gain a greater understanding. I suppose that Socratic seminars and peer editing might also fit under this category.

Is this a typical understanding of the two terms or am I mixing them up? I have not done much research on cooperative learning, so I will certainly claim ignorance on the subject! I would love to hear what others believe is the most effective way to address social learning and how to combat the pitfalls of “cooperative learning” as I understand it.

What do YOU think?

Waiting and Teaching

As I walked around my students in the computer lab recently, I realized that some things I no longer include on my resume actually have helped set me up to be a better teacher. When I was in high school, like most young people, my parents felt I should get a job to learn about money and work. At that time, I had more energy than any person should have and tended to exude a bubbly personality. So I got a job as a waitress at a pizza buffet.

Previously, I always thought I had gained only two things from this job: the knowledge that smiling a lot helps calm [most] people down and an addiction to over-tipping. Turns out, I learned a lot about managing chaos and picking up on nuances of individuals.

Since I don’t smoke and my parents would not get me a cell phone (“I’ve never had one and somehow I survived…”), while I was at work, I worked. I spent very little time in the back room where the cooks were and relatively little time at the waitress stand.  In order to feel efficient and to ward off boredom, I made myself available. I did odd jobs in the seating area and made the rounds quite often-almost to the point of being annoying.

I did not always stop to ask “Can I get you anything?” because sometimes all I needed to do was walk past and gauge and anticipate any potential needs or wants. There are, of course, obvious signs like a bunch of dirty plates or a nearly empty glass. But you also learn to see when someone is thinking of asking for something. Sometimes I just needed to walk by so they could let me know of an issue I could not predict on my own, but that they would not seek me out to address.

When I roam through the room during independent or small group work, I feel almost exactly the same way. Sometimes you can almost see the question forming on a students lips or the puzzled expression revealing itself in their eyes. Perhaps it’s more obvious, like a blank page after 5-10 minutes of work time. Maybe it’s less obvious than that. Either way, after making the effort to learn your students, you can often tell when you just need to walk by or when you need to stop and directly as an individual student how things are going and if they need anything. Some kids might not bother to check for clarification if it involves walking all the way up to the teacher’s desk (for many students, I’m afraid this seems to be intimidating and/or embarrassing), but if you are right by their desk, they might just whisper that question and thereby enhance their understanding somehow.

Just like as a waitress, I couldn’t stay in the back room or the waitress stand (yup, the pizza place I worked at was sexist and chauvenistic and only hired young girls…) and expect to offer high quality service, I cannot sit at my desk all the time and expect to improve student learning. Even when I may seem annoying in my wandering through the room, I need to be accessible and not wait for students to come to me. This is helpful for student learning, engagement, and classroom management. Sure, it’s basic stuff, but I think it’s always a good reminder.

And hey, give a good tip. 🙂

Idealism & Reality

In reflecting on my observations and interactions in my PLN over the last (almost) year, one common vein seems most apparent. There are two divergent belief systems.

1: “If you build it, they will come” – In this mentality, educators believe that we don’t need to have an authority or control model or grades any longer because the future will be more egalitarian and about individuals working at their own pace in their own fields of interest.

To some extent, I really like the idea of letting go of some of these traits of the old model in favor of encouraging students to pursue passions at their own rates. Fundamentally, however, I fear that subscribing wholly to such an idealogy will leave students unprepared for their real futures.

2: Human nature is a relatively fixed reality, hierarchies and competition are inevitable. – This more conservative and traditional belief may not be set in some kind of conspiracy to damage the proletariat, but instead to keep our world functioning and facilitate progress.

In fact, even in a *more* egalitarian and individual led future world, I can hardly think that anyone would believe that competition and hierarchies of authority and control will dissipate.

I have been plagued with the debate between “learning and compliance” as @irasocol so perfectly sums it up. I have felt ripped apart between these but I suppose at the end of the day, I have to prepare my students for BOTH. And yeah, that’s tough. I can only assume that in the future, as throughout all of history, most of my students will have bosses, colleagues to compete with, and deadlines to endure.

I must seek ways to let students find their own path in their learning while setting deadlines. I must create an environment where students can both feel comfortable talking to me and not be afraid, but yet must understand that what I say ultimately has to happen or we have consequences.

This has been the most difficult balance for me to negotiate and I’m still not feeling very solid about it. Do you ever worry that you are really preparing students for an idealistic and, likely, utopian future?

Serious Reflection on Education

In this reflection on my year of online interaction and PLN building, I’m going to dig a little deeper and uglier than normal. I would like to preface this by acknowledging how our pedagogical practices and values are deeply embedded in our political ideologies and hope that my readers will engage me even if they do not agree. [Note: I actually wonder if there exists any universal pedagogical truth or if all “it’s just common sense” is so effected by our other convictions that we struggle to understand the beliefs of others.]

For a year now, I have been reading and questioning and engaging and observing conversations about change. “We need change in education” is nothing compared to the “we need to flip education as it stands today upside down for the sake of our kids” revolutionary talk that is prevalent in my PLN.

Me? Always the balance girl, I cannot decide. I feel very much as though I am sitting comfortably in the beliefs that my background has afforded me and yet I feel I am being pulled unwillingly some days and drawn curiously other days to this idea of revolution. I would like to share my tentative thoughts as of today in this fresh new year.

#1 – Capitalist ideas are not the enemy of all. Countries who have educational systems that are producing critical engineers and who are focusing on progress and innovation do not have easy educational systems. It’s hard to get through their programs.

Competition is not inherently problematic and I cannot accept that the bell curve is meaningless. I, too, have limitations of ability and that’s ok. In fact, I believe it’s preferable to understand one’s own abilities, strengths, and weaknesses objectively. I am terrible at spatial relationships. I could never be an engineer or physicist as a result. That’s good for me to know before I apply for college, right?

Well, what if I were a high school student trying to decide where to apply? I need to know if I need to be at a school offering remedial courses in math or language to get caught up before I transfer to a 4 year school or if I should aim higher or if I should be looking at vocational school instead. This is not condescending or cruel if you have the right filter. ALL of these paths have merit and will benefit the individual and the world around him or her.

Not everyone should be aiming for a four year college. It will be a waste of time and money for some and it will set some students up for failure. It’s OUR problem that we have decided this is what everyone should do and that anything short of this path is not “successful”. WE need to change this perception that educators have created in our culture. A country full of lawyers, philosophers, and English majors would not be able to sustain itself. Show some respect.

#2 – A good education is a privilege. We cannot force anyone to value this against their will. Just as attempting to go in and force a nation to adopt democracy is artificial, so is telling a student that they have to care about what we teach them (and then not letting them reap the consequences of poor choices). If we had more special programs as some magnet schools do where students want to be placed in them, students might work harder to reach that immediate goal. College at the end of 13 years of school is not necessarily a motivating goal for many students. We need to find rewards that are actually educational (rather than ipods and bonus points). And I think that a lightly structured, highly flexible form of tracking might be more beneficial to respecting the vast array of career and future choices of our students than insisting that future doctors take science classes with future welders. For both, science is critical but each requires a different angle.

#1 + #2 = #3

#3 – Change must be organic. It cannot be top down, whether top refers to the federal or state governments or school boards or principals. That does not work, we’ve been watching that all along. There may be top down strategies that could be beneficial, but the change we are seeking must start smaller and simpler.

I’m not sure where. I absolutely believe that our networks online are a starting place to an extent, but how do we get parents on board? My entire life I feel that I have watched the school system usurp parental responsibility with good intentions. “They weren’t doing it/learning it/exposed to it at home, and they need to understand this therefore we must do it for them.”

Fair enough. Punishing the kids for problematic parenting issues seems wrong.

But rather than just say, “give me that [child], you’re doing it wrong!” maybe we should have exhausted ourselves trying to “empower” [I know there are those who dislike this term, but you get the gist] parents. As teachers, we would never do this to our students and try not to do this to our own children, right? I mean sure, it takes five times longer to watch and model and try to help our kids tie their own shoes and it would be much easier to just do it for them – after all, we’re shoe tying experts- but the kids would be dependent on us forever if this was our reaction.

This is what I feel schools have done, and I can only imagine that it distances the school from the parent even more by belittling struggling parents who have often felt mistreated by schools in their own youth.

#4 – One size will never fit all. We are terribly complex as humans. Educational, psychological, and sociological sciences will never be able to be right because they can only create theories and generalizations. They will always be wrong for *someone*. That doesn’t mean we stop trying to learn, research, and understand. It just means we have to accept that we can only try to offer the most options feasible to most adequately help the greatest number of students. I believe this might be related to the charter school format being adopted on a larger scale where parents can choose schools based on what they offer (heavier in the arts, or maybe technology, maybe math and science, maybe different schedules, etc). This seems more ideal than tracking because it would be student/parent driven choices rather than schools deciding that students should study at the same time and in the same course as other kids who happen to have the same birthyear and zipcode. [Note: because our physical walls are shrinking, I believe students would still have plenty of exposure to students from notably different backgrounds through online and cooperative activities. And really, diversity by interest versus diversity by geography- either way, you are not necessarily being offered diversity.]

Please share your thoughts (good or bad) or if you’d rather, this might be a good conversation for Google Wave… Thanks for reading!

First New Year’s Resolution

I have been reflecting on 2009 and will post later. To sum it up, I have learned more in the last year about education and the world around me than in any other single year of my life and I feel I owe so much of that to my online networks. I am exposed to such varying ideas and theories and strategies and have the privilege of considering each of them against my own ideas.

My biggest concern is that in my path to discovering, I have required a great deal of help and support from other teachers, which they happily and generously offer. But sometimes it becomes narcissistic (as many web applications tempt us to do if not self monitored).

For 2010, I propose to comment on other education related blogs. ONE PER DAY. I will then post a link on twitter (@iMrsF) and a hastag of #365comments.

If anyone wants to join me in this endeavor, I’m confident that bloggers will appreciate the effort. Few things are as comforting as receiving comments that let you know that you are not alone in your ponderings or field. Since education is so often an isolated field, I hope this will be a way to encourage others while learning along the way. Win-win!


My Favorite Things

First: don’t laugh – too hard. I’m no poet and I could never perform like Julie Andrews! 🙂 [Thank your lucky stars this isn’t a podcast!]

Second: I couldn’t help it, just feeling inspired and I always associate that song with Christmas time. I’d love to see your adaptation for your favorite things about teaching. We had a really great day and students are (oh sure, not all) generally excited about our Crucible projects-making board games and glogsters and more. Heard today, “that’s the best ‘poster’ I’ve ever made! I’m so excited right now!” Good day. What teaching strategies have yielded such positive results for you? Wouldn’t it be nice to have those days more and more often? 🙂

My Favorite Things

Glogsters on novels with animated art

Google documents for collaborating

Ning discussions for inquiry learning

These are a few of my favorite things

Choices and freedom for differentiating

Connections abound in this digital world

And there’s Twitter for PLN building

These are a few of my favorite things

When the test bites

When the stress stings

When I’m feeling sad

I simply remember my favorite things

And then I don’t feel so bad