Using content to focus on skills

One of the changes I have been making in my classes and as a EAL support teacher is putting more emphasis on the skills students need to learn. These are generally life-long tools students need to develop to succeed. I believe this skills set makes learning meaningful. Generally, under skills I am referring to what the IB calls Approaches to Teaching and Learning (ATL) and include critical thinking, research, communication, self management and social skills. Once again this ties in nicely with achieving successful teaching and learning and Creating Cultures of thinking (R.Ritchhart). One of the best PD workshops I went to a couple of years ago covered the ATLs and attached is a very useful document for anyone who wishes to check what they are really teaching in class other than content. The document is a simple checklist of what you consider you cover in your classes from a student perspective as well as a teachers.

This week in my G9 English Language Arts class I prepared a two class activity focusing on one of these skills. We are currently reading Animal Farm by G.Orwell and I used this as a means to focus on presentation skills. Our current unit ends with an assessment of a persuasive speech, although Animal Farm is the bulk of the unit, we are actually looking at literary devices and persuasion, the power of words. The activity we did can be summed up as preparing a short speech  which was to be performed under criteria of a performance rubric I had prepared. Students where given a paragraph from the novel about the construction of a Windmill and had to either support Napoleon or Snowball’s point of view. At first the students gathered their ideas individually with the help of a worksheet, then they paired up and shared ideas (Think – Pair – Share). The pairs where then divided and groups of 3 to 4 students worked together to prepare a speech in each group.

This seems like a very typical activity occurring in many English classes but it wasn’t. Early on I received questions from individuals who thought this was an assessed piece of work. I had broken the activity down into steps and had given very clear instructions before we started. I am a firm believer of writing the purpose of the class on the board and often include questions based on this. As you can see in the photo, the essential questions were: “what’s my body language while presenting?” and “how should I use my body when presenting?” Clearly not really content orientated. Nevertheless what struck me most throughout the class was the number of students who thought it was assessed and who had a hard time comprehending the idea of focusing on skills. Throughout the two classes I had a number of conversations explaining these things again and again. (And yes, at my school students are very used to and comfortable with being spoon-fed!)

In the second lesson students completed their speeches whilst I told groups not to worry about format of speech and other details they were worrying about. I gave each group the performance rubric with highlighted criteria they would act out while performing the speech. They were given time to practice and by this stage the class was fully engaged in the activity, thinking of all kinds of ways to act out their speech. With all the groups I had selected criteria on the lower end of the rubric, in other words: “what NOT to do”. I also gave each group the opportunity to perform their speech normally if they wanted to, most did not and that was fine. All in all, the students enjoyed the activity and had a laugh too. I closed the class by asking them to reflect on this in their journals by creating a headline and justifying it. A beautiful 10 minutes of silent thinking and writing which ended with just a few students sharing their headlines and opinions on the activity before we all went home.

Finally I have to give credit to our secondary librarian who is a fantastic source of support and ideas. As we were briefly planning how some of the years units and assessments would link to skills, she immediately pulled a book from the shelf: Well Spoken, teaching to all students by Erik Palmer. It contained some great information but mostly I found the rubrics very useful because the language was student friendly. Of course the most satisfying result of this activity was the positive reactions students gave me from: “Awesome”, “fantastic”, “this was a really useful activity” to “that’s great, I have never done stuff like this before, it makes sense” and “I learned something useful today sir!”.


ATL document and performance rubric.