Strong tools for deeper understanding

The Scholars
“Bald heads forgetful of their sins,
Old, learned, respectable bald heads
Edit and annotate the lines
That young men, tossing on their beds,
Rhymed out in love’s despair
To flatter beauty’s ignorant ear.

They’ll cough in the ink to the world’s end;
Wear out the carpet with their shoes
Earning respect; have no strange friend;
If they have sinned nobody knows.
Lord, what would they say
Should their Catullus walk that way?”
― W.B. YeatsThe Wild Swans at Coole

A continuous challenge with the students I teach as ELLs or not has been to find ways in which to deepen their understanding about what they are learning. Words like”shallow” and “depth“, “digging deeper” are common in my conversations with students. But how do you get students to find this depth of understanding? Two teaching strategies that I find useful are peer assessment feedback and annotation.

By implementing the 8 forces of a thinking culture into the classroom I have noticed positive results but also resistance from students. Taking responsibility for your own learning is challenging, requires effort and discipline that teenagers do not always feel they are prepared to take on. Creating curiosity and inspiring students is a very challenging task for any educator, principally when it’s not happening across the school. Being “spoonfed” content is comfortable!

Nevertheless, peer assessment is one tool that helps learners to understand how they can improve in something or see what went wrong. All feedback is important and helpful but not all students really digest it unless time is made to sit down one on one and discuss it in detail. Hearing or reading feedback from peers adds a different perspective which makes it valuable because it’s not the same. Hearing it from an adult or a classmate is simply different. Therefore it’s a powerful tool that that can really help students.

While doing an activity annotating a text the power of peer feedback really came out in class, explicitly because the feedback was given by groups, not individually. As all the students had done the same annotation activity and had been given feedback from me on a rubric, including comments, all the students had a good idea of what the expectations were. The same text was photocopied bigger and students were asked to annotate it in small groups a second time, sharing their initial findings and putting them all together. I then told them that students from the other class (there are two groups/classes) would peer assess the work. By doing so, I created curiosity amongst the two classes as the students were keen to see what the other groups were achieving. During the activity I listened in on the conversations and was impressed by some of the things students were discussing. Conversations were pointing out aspects of shallowness that I had been noticing.

The annotation task was supported by a simple yet clear rubric that clearly stated what was expected under each grade boundary. This again is a vital detail as everyone is clear on the requirements of the task. For example, a common disregard was to identify literary devices in the text but not comment on the effect on the reader. The rubric also requires questions to be made which some students also choose to ignore. Then having discussed how to deconstruct the text with me and later giving it a second attempt and seeing from peers  how they assessed the task had positive results. Students started identifying their own areas of improvement.

Text annotation is a useful skill for many subject areas and also for ELLs. Texts at any grade level can be annotated for language purposes as well as content or literary purposes. Younger students should do more of this to learn a skill that will help organize and provide evidence, plan tasks for texts that they need to study in secondary or beyond. Using highlighted markers and colour codes are basic skills that should really be second nature by the time you enter high school. Most importantly, annotation is finding evidence in a text for whatever it is a student is learning about. ELLs could be identifying adjectives, in science it may help to identify a process or theory, and in humanities it could be used to highlight key events. The possibilities are endless.

Attached the annotation rubric (courtesy of Mrs C. Mkinsi, a truly talented english teacher and IB coordinator at RAS). The simplicity and clarity make this an excellent example of what a rubric should look like. I mention this as it made assessing simple, quick and most importantly very clear.

Author: Niels Zwart

Living in Rabat, Morocco. Also lived in The Netherlands, UK, Spain and China. EAL in Secondary, English Literature, Social Studies, IBDP Spanish ab initio. Family man, music, reading, cooking and eating, tennis and table tennis, and traveling.

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