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.

Differentiating, summaries and identifying learning abilities and language needs

My G9 ELA are ready to start their next unit based around a Memoir by E.Wiesel, Night. As I did not want to start the novel before the winter break, I decided to create a non-fiction summary activity to introduce the dark theme of Holocaust and Genocide, coincidentally linking it to their Social Studies unit on Syria.

With the help of our secondary librarian I planned this activity to some detail, selecting 3 texts related to Genocide and/or Syria, creating a Summary Rubric assessing Communication Skills as well as providing a lesson on how to write a good summary step by step which included a sample text and example summaries. Incidentally, librarians are valuable resources for teachers and I strongly recommend you use them, planning with another educator is also beneficial as a different viewpoint comes out; my experience being that I often find a second person points out details that I may overlook!

To introduce the topic we had selected an article on Samoa that discussed some of the challenges the Island faces in the twenty-first century. After initial discussions on what a “good” summary should include, students were explained that 4 crucial steps should be taken to write a summary: Read – Annotate – Take notes – Write summary & Check work. Students were provided with a Summary Checklist. In small groups they then read and annotated the text. Before sharing I asked students to complete a worksheet on Colour/Symbol/Image with the intention of them firstly having thought deeper about the text and secondly provide some details to share in their discussions. In small groups students then shared their key points and by the end of the lesson they were able to compare them with the ones I had prepared. This assured them they were on the right track (or not). Pretty standard lesson using Think/Pair/Share and gave students thinking time before discussions. The task got really interesting at this point; for homework I had prepared a discussion task on Schoology (Moodle type platform). I had uploaded 2 summaries, one being weak and another that was very strong and students were asked to read these, use the summary checklist to analyze them and write a comment using: Claim/Support/Question. Students are familiar with this routine and mostly provided meaningful evaluations of the summary. What I like most about this routine is the question part because it pushes them to think further. The homework gave me insight into who was understanding what we were doing. Most students wrote meaningful claims that were supported although there were a few students who were totally off track.

It was in the following class that the element of differentiation came into play. The librarian had selected a number of articles of different lengths and language complexity of which we selected three. The first being the shortest and simplest and the third being the longest and most complex from a language perspective. All three articles were either about Syria, Genocide and/or the Holocaust. Together with the Social Studies teacher and a Learning Support colleague we selected which student would summarize each article. I did not explain to the students in detail why they were all given different articles but needed to do so after the assignment as some questioned it as they are not used to this type of approach. At RAS unfortunately most teachers differentiate little and seem to think it is the responsibility of the support teachers, EAL or LS. This in itself is a point I strongly disagree with simply because in a classroom with students each individual learns at their own pace, is able to achieve to the best of his/her abilities and are not all at the same stage in the learning process; no one ever is. Support teachers can adapt tasks for specific learning needs but it is the subject teachers who should also play an important role in differentiating for all their students and not just provide one task for all.

After assessing the summaries, what surprised me most were two trends I observed. The first being that on the lower end students were not using their own words but copying from the text to different degrees, something that was discussed besides being in the rubric which they had read and checked for understanding earlier. The second trend was that on the higher end, even with a more challenging article the students mostly wrote outstanding summaries only forgetting minor details. The main one being to start the summary by mentioning what is being summarized, in this case an article of some type.

So what are the next steps? Clearly about half the G9s need practice and the others can move on to more challenging written assignments. How I go about this will require some thought and discussion with the students, the librarian and hopefully other staff apart from fusing it with the current unit. One of the things I really liked about this task is that it identifies which route you need to take with each student. To create a true learning culture, you can plan your units but must be prepared to adapt them over and over to the needs of the individual students. To me this is what makes teaching diverse, fun, challenging and creative!



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!”.


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.