Using TIME to Engage in Learning

This summer I decided to take a different approach to teaching the G9 English Language Arts class. A huge part of this was connected to the Creating Cultures of Thinking book by Ron Ritchhart I had read and am currently doing the online course from Harvard School of Education. The results of this new acquired knowledge are already showing their fruits in my classes.

The first unit covered literary devices and persuasion incorporated the novel by George Orwell, Animal Farm (AF) as the main bulk. A challenging unit to say the least with plenty of options on how to go about it. In this blog I will focus specifically on the novel section as this in itself could have easily been a separate unit. I deliberately choose to not teach the novel in a conventional/traditional way but to use my new knowledge of thinking routines, aspects of creating cultures of thinking (Cultural Forces like time) and discussion to see where the outcomes would take the students and myself.

To use class time efficiently, I decided to get the students to read chapters at home. At first I checked their understanding through standard comprehension questions although I soon engaged the schools Moodle system (Schoology) to get students to respond to novel themes in discussion assignments (See previous blogs). They were short homework tasks (10-15 minutes) and nicely documented understanding of the novel. This worked well as ALL the students needed to respond but could do so without the pressures of open classroom discussions where only some students participate. From an EAL perspective this tool is outstanding! Animal Farm is full of rich vocabulary, so I decided early on to give vocabulary quizzes, students created and revised on Quizlets and Kahoot quizzes before the actual formative assessments. They enjoyed this and the results were positive. It also allowed class time to be used on student centered activities going beyond simple worksheets or novel comprehension activities.

What really proved to be the outcome of meaningful learning was when the students started to dig into the novel discussion activity used a lot in high school called fishbowl discussions. To prepare these I would use thinking routines like: Think/Pair/Share, Headlines, Sentence/Phrase/Word, See/Think/Wonder, What Makes you Say That amongst others, depending on what expectations/objectives/outcomes I had.  The routines, now to some extent “normal” in my classes, allowed students to clarify their thinking, focus it and direct their thinking into the right direction successfully. Considerable time was dedicated to providing feedback from both peers and myself after these discussions. This proved to be extremely powerful and resourceful. The fishbowl discussions forced students to be engaged if not in the actual discussion and the expectation of providing feedback on peers really set high expectations amongst students. By providing feedback throughout most of the activities and guiding or redirecting them, they understood where Animal Farm was taking them, they were engaged, interested and expressing ideas and areas they would like to learn more about.

All this took time to do with the G9s although from the early stages I realized it was creating curiosity and interest. Since the start of the school year there have been many long weekends and other (positive) disturbances breaking the daily routines at school which caused classes to be cancelled and planning to be delayed. I often questioned if I was going too slow, seeing what other teachers do who somehow stick to their tight timeline no matter what. However, though pressured, I continued by justifying to myself that these circumstances where beyond my control and I was on the right track.  Towards the end of the novel I did a thinking routine: Connect/Extend/Challenge (CEC) linked to showing students how questioning can help define one’s thinking. As a result the documentation of CEC proved again to display strong evidence of understandings related to the novel and the world today.

The summative assessment linked to the novel is a creative project where students choose a “life lesson” connected to Animal Farm and the world today.
Options varied from writing an essay, a letter to Orwell, rewriting/writing another chapter or more artistically making a voice-over video/PP or a collage/canvas, a poem, etc. Under guidance I gave the students the freedom to express themselves freely as long as they followed the criteria and rubric.
Those who chose more artistic approaches where clearly explained they needed to include a written aspect explaining their ideas, planning and so on. Once again the results were extremely positive and students who were not as strong in writing were able to demonstrate their understanding in other ways. The assessment was broken down a series of stages which allowed me to check and discuss progress with students and question or guide their thinking.

The point of this blog being that by focusing more on specific skills and learning objectives which went above simple knowledge or content of a novel, students demonstrated far deeper understanding which they were able to connect to the real world. Skills were developed that students need to as life-long learners, which they can develop further over the years, but above all the process had more meaning for everybody. It made me realize I would rather do any unit slowly and meaningfully than rush through a years curriculum and achieve considerably less as a teacher and  with the students. Use your time wisely! It did not create more “work” for me but only a different perspective. Above all, it gave the time with G9s together value.

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!”.

Attached:

ATL document and performance rubric.

 

Differentiating with technology

In my last blog I mentioned limiting teacher talk and as a result a colleague shared an interesting article on 4 Strategies to Model Literacy which also stresses the importance of limiting the amount of time teachers speak. Although this may seem logical, it is in fact very challenging; as a support teacher going into other classrooms as well as having my own classes, I understand why teachers often explain instructions far too detailed and go on and on. They are concerned students won’t do things right or feel things need to be explained further, so its out of concern rather than enjoying lecturing. I am constantly questioning the time I speak to my students as a whole class but have noticed I now explain things only once, use aids (board/projector) to support what I am saying and go round checking and answering individuals concerns, those who did not get it from the first moment. A great way to manage time better and keeping students engaged!

This method of limiting my  talking time is also a form of differentiating as the second action of going around the class and checking or assisting the students who are not quite getting it provides them with the attention they need to get on with it. There are many ways to differentiate, many great books and links explaining ways but it is still something I believe many teachers struggle with. Conversations I sometimes have with colleagues are justifying the lack of differentiation by claiming limited preparation time, pressure to get through curriculum or that it is the job of the support teachers. Generally fair arguments but what is learning all about for each individual student if we don’t differentiate? Is it fair to just expect all students to perform at a given level? Should we only differentiate for the Learning Support or EAL students? Studies clearly suggest not and a simple Google Search on “differentiating in the classroom” can get you started.

In my grade 9 English Language Arts classes I need to differentiate a lot, so I am constantly searching for ways to do so besides reflecting on what worked or didn’t. Introducing thinking routines has also taught me to learn from my failures just as I expect my students to, and I happily share with students what I think worked or didn’t, just like I want them to share their ideas with me. Thinking routines create food for thought and discussion besides visualizing student thinking. However, not all students feel comfortable discussing openly in the classroom, even if I do my best to create a culture in the classroom where they should feel safe enough. Part of the problem is also some students still not being “educated” sufficiently to be able to discuss fairly and in a well mannered fashion which goes at the cost of others not sharing their thoughts comfortably. So while I am training my classes to discuss in a more educated form, I have started using technology to hold discussions silently.

Whilst supporting in grade 10 classes, I realized my fellow teacher was posting discussions on the course Schoology (a type of Moodle system for schools) page and getting students to comment and reply to poetry. I thought this was a truely great way to differentiate and discuss because students can take their time, prepare their comments and post them when ready. Setting time limits is important here. The pace is much slower than a open classroom discussion which may go way over the heads of Learning Support, unengaged or EAL students due to it’s speed. Grammarly is another useful tool here because some students can write their comments on it first and them copy and paste onto the course platform, avoiding language errors (spelling, punctuation, grammar). Here the cyber discussion allows everybody to discuss at their pace, while monitored by the teacher. By adding some criteria to the discussion and telling the class it is a formative assessment it also forces the less engaged students to take it seriously. All in all an easy yet great way to differentiate.

 

 

Cultures of thinking

One of the things I really like about SPELTAC is that blogging is a great way to reflect on one’s teaching. Another school year has started with new students and classes. One of my objectives during this period is setting up the routines and culture of learning I want my students to be in. Walk around any school corridor at the beginning of semester 1 and you will see teachers setting rules and expectations for the years learning to be hopefully successful. To challenge myself a little, I set myself a speaking to the class or lecturing time limit of 8 minutes out of 65. This means that although I will speak to groups and individuals throughout the class, I want my explanations or whole class teacher talk to be no more than 8 minutes long. I asked my students to time this to make it a communal challenge. It will be interesting to see if I can achieve this regularly!

Following on from my “Making Thinking Visible” PD the group of teachers I did the course with decided to go a step further and do the course: “Creating Cultures of Thinking” by Ron Ritchhart, also a Project Zero related PD from Harvard Graduate School of Education. Reading the book over the summer I discovered some great ideas to start of the year with 2 grade 9 English Literature classes I teach. Both classes have ELLs as well as Learning Support students and a wide range of levels form intermediate to native. The term differentiate comes to mind as some students will find “Animal farm”, “To Kill a Mockingbird” or “A midsummer nights dream” tough novels to read. How can I keep them all engaged at their varied levels of understanding?

Ron Ritchhart’s suggested 8 forces to master to truly transform our schools has been fascinating inspiration and motivated me to set some standards and ideas for my classes and thus slowly creating a culture of thinking from the very start of the year. I could waffle on endlessly about Ron and his forces but this blog is about how some principles, strategies and ideas mentioned in the book are helping me create a classroom where I facilitate and guide while we are all engaged in a journey of learning together. Sure, I lead (at times) and decide how the time is spent but what I choose for us to do is done together as a community to learn.

The school I am currently at would need to be totally redesigned from scratch if it was to model all the forces Ron Ritchhart suggests to create a 21st century learning environment. Just as he quite fairly argues, for most teachers and schools you have to start off small, let the culture grow and maybe, eventually we’ll get there, but it’s not something that changes overnight! My list of inconveniences would be quite long as the classroom as a learning environment is not perfect, neither are the desks, schedules, curriculum, and so on, but there are still many things I can do. If my students are engaged and challenged adequately, there is potential to learn positively.

In “Creating Cultures of Thinking” many ideas are explained through case studies and classroom observations. One of the ideas I loved and used in a first class with students (and which will also be repeated throughout the whole year) is the following short slide show which I combined with the Thinking Routine “See-Think-Wonder”. As mentioned in the case study, I showed a picture of a teacher lecturing and through a discussion of “Seeing”, then “Thinking and Wondering” the students came to the conclusion it represented “lecturing”; I told them I did not do that. Next there was an image of a spoon referring to “spoon feeding” which created another interesting discussion amongst students.  This is how I went through a bunch of slides which raised awareness in the group about how WE would spend time together and learn. Another image was a skydiver or the fairy-god-mother from The wizard of OZ. Discussing how these images related to our English literature class really got students thinking. The other objective with this activity was to present and introduce thinking routines as a tool for our learning.

Earlier on I mentioned “differentiating” being a massive must in the classes and thinking routines allow for students to think at their level. Using “we” to refer to the class rather than me and them is another minor detail that is extremely powerful. The first classes have been all about sending the message that we are one community. Harvard’s Project Zero team have many more suggestions as to how to communicate, also emphasizing on the importance of listening or phrasing questions or statements to engage or question rather than cut a students thinking. The most obvious and best example is: “What makes you say that?”

Finally as my liking for Connect-Extend-Challenge is growing, I also introduced this routine in a class where WE watched RSA Animate: Changing Education Paradigms . To my surprise it was ELL’s who shared more ideas and thoughts than some other “classic” high achievers, clearly because the environment and structure of the routine gave them the time to manage and process their thoughts better. Whereas one group of three boys, none of whom are EAL found “extend” and “challenge” very hard as the Thinking Routine had put them in unknown territory. Could it be they were used to being spoon fed? All in all for me the challenge of these first weeks is not to rush into content but set habits, routines and expectations in the classroom that invite students to feel comfortable, gain confidence and enjoy the journey through novels, poetry and literature that we have just started. The last activity students did was write a headline about the class, a great way to round off and get them to reflect.

And to complete a full circle, this blog allowed me to reflect on the first week of classes, students and my teaching. Thanks SPELTAC!

 

The power of Thinking Routines

 

Now that I am halfway through my “Making Thinking Visible”on-line PD, I am really starting to see notice how it is influencing my teaching. Modern education is taking a step back from content and trying to focus more on what skills students need to be prepared for our ever changing world. The thinking routines are one of those skills and come in such a simple, practical and flexible package, any teacher can quickly and easily incorporate them in their classroom. The ideal situation is to have students going through school encountering thinking routines across the curriculum, so when they are older they can apply the routines to real life situations and thus make the correct decisions (the idea in a nutshell).

As a language teacher the routines have benefits too. Specific questions and structures provide a perfect environment for ELLs to practice and focus on language from all aspects. Even in mixed ability groups it is easy to adapt frameworks and models that target students individual levels. The first routine I want to discuss is See-Think-Wonder (STW). Quite possible one of the core thinking routines, many educators will have come across this in workshops, conferences, meetings as well as in classrooms. It was the first routine I was expected to try out on a class as I started the PD and since then I have used it quite a few times in order to really understand how it works. Thinking routines have a purpose so they need to be used in the right context and at the right time. Ask yourself: “what do I want them to get out of this?” or”how does it fit in to the unit?” while planning a unit.

One of the latest STW I did was in a G10 language arts poetry unit. Students had been looking at poetry throughout the ages and now my co-teacher and I wanted students to write some poetry based on a set of images. We didn’t just want to project the image and let them get on with it as this would limit some students to write something constructive and straight from the heart!  was used with a table of three columns. As I projected the picture, first students were given a few minutes to write down what they say, using “I see…”. We then had a brief class conversation and moved on to “I think…”, sharing some ideas again before finishing with “I wonder…”. Doing it in steps is important as it slows the students down and forces them to think, I moved around the class, insisted on no discussions with neighbors and challenged those who tried to do the minimum. Once we were done I told the students to write a poem based on the image. The outcome was very positive because the poems deeper thought driven ideas. The final question I wrote at the bottom of the STW handout was: “How did this routine affect your thinking?” This is very important as with all the routines, if you want students to become aware or conscious of their thinking it needs to be discussed openly in class. I had not thought about that before doing the PD but it makes sense. On this occasion I asked students to write an answer but generally I find these mini reflections bring out great conversations with the class, either about the thinking or about the content. This link shows how the different routines are categorized 4_AT_Palette with Routines.

In many of my previous blogs I have referred to team-teaching as this is one of the challenges I have doing EAL support in secondary. Most teachers are not used to sharing a classroom in secondary, certainly not to the point of stepping back and letting the “support teacher” run the show! (This is a barrier I am breaking down at my current school slowly but surely). My point being that thinking routines are the perfect activity for team-teachers to split up and share the actual teaching. I usually lead the routines and my colleagues are happy to step back, observe or drift around and help individuals. Once you know a couple of routines and where they best fit in to a unit they are easy to apply. The reason I really like them is because the can make whatever you are teaching more meaningful to the students and making them more engaged in their learning.

Finally here are some useful thinking routines that many of you will already know but are worth revisiting on the web to remind yourself where and how to use them best. A great routine for reflecting is: I used to think….But now I think…; Think-pair-share is great for to combine with other routines or activities; Think-Puzzle-Explore is a routine for deeper inquiry; Circle of viewpoints and Compass points are two powerful routines for exploring diverse perspectives. There are many more but those really interested should go to the website and consider doing the online PD!

The 4 C’s routine

I am excited to be starting a PD course on “Making Thinking Visible”, (http://www.visiblethinkingpz.org/VisibleThinking_html_files/03_ThinkingRoutines/03b_Introduction.html) based aroundMaking Thinking Visible a fascinating book with the same title from R.Ritchhart, M.Church and K.Morrison. Ironically I found the book in the Elementary library where they told me it was about to be given away as nobody ever borrowed it.

One of the “thinking routines” I came across in the book is called the 4C’s: Connections, Challenge, Concepts and Changes.

“This routine provides learners with a structure for a text-based discussion built around making connections, asking questions, identifying key ideas, and considering application.” (R.Ritchhart, M.Church and K.Morrison, Making Thinking Visible, p140)

The 4C’s fit in well with G10 English who are completing Othello and preparing to write an essay as a final summative on this part of the TRAGEDY unit. The 4C’s routine appealed to me because it asks the students 4 questions. One of the keys to teaching and learning is asking the right question using the right words and listening to the answer. This activity does precisely that. To get a better idea, here are the questions:

The 4C’s routine (R.Ritchhart, M.Church and K.Morrison, Making Thinking Visible, p140):

  1. Connections: What connections do you draw between the text (Othello) and your own life or your other learning?
  2. Challenge: What ideas, positions, or assumptions do you want to challenge or argue with in the text (Othello)?
  3. Concepts: What key concepts or ideas do you think are important and worth holding on to from the text (Othello)?
  4. Changes: What changes in attitudes, thinking, or action are suggested by the text (Othello), either for you or others?

IMG_4274 While preparing the activity I was a little concerned with the students responses being “shallow”, a point also mentioned in the book. I was also imagining some small group work to be involved but wasn’t quite sure where to do this during the activity and did not need to do it during the first two questions. The activity flowed well, students were given about 5 minutes to write their answers down. Next students reported to the class and IMG_4273discussions arose, points were made, other questions raised and some real critical thinking was being done. Despite only getting through half of the activity in one class the results were great and the objective was met; getting the students to reflect meaningfully before planning, drafting and writing their final essay.

I specifically asked students to give meaning to theirIMG_4276 answers, explain and justify their ideas which most of them did. Both questions (1 & 2) allowed for some brilliant conversations and ideas to be shared in the class. Students shared some personal experiences and views on racism, sexism which could have been elaborated more if time permitted. The “challengeIMG_4271” question really showed students understanding of the novel and what had frustrated them, Emilia’s death being a popular theme or Iago finally being caught out, stabbed and imprisoned. It was interesting to see how students enjoyed challenging the play too, most students had a clear grudge against something or someone in the play, even Shakespeare himself!

The images of student notes show some variety in language and thought levels besides giving me some indication of their deeper understanding of the play.

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Particularly for EAL students, Othello is quite challenging, so it was important for them to have the play broken down, discussed and analyzed. It was good to see that most students had got something out of the play. Curiously I had expected to have to ask “And what makes you say that?” a couple of times to get students to justify their ideas but it wasn’t needed, another indication that students generally got the deeper themes and ideas in the play.

Related and inspirational blogs:

Visual Literacy: understanding the world through imagery – Dana Carney

Talk Cue Cards to facilitate discussion – Chelsea Woods

The role of discussion in engagement – Chelsea Woods