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.

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!

Developing Notes

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With a G8 Social Studies class we had recently finished a research project and came to the conclusion that note-taking was challenging to the class. As a result students were asked to make a short presentation on how to make good notes using a selection of youtube videos and/or prezi’s.
img_4039One of the most rewarding experiences for teachers has to be when learning has been achieved. This week the G8 class was sharing notes on a reading they had to do which had some astonishing results. The use of headings, keywords and colour codes clearly showed how some students had taken their notes to a higher level. In fact a couple of students had even managed to use codes that made the notes understandable to its author but not necessarily another students or reader. img_4041This led to some interesting discussions amongst the class too.
Jan Michael’s blog: “It’s good to be old-school” also mentions some positive feedback from students about note-taking in his classes. It also points out how his students found using pen and paper and traditional copying helped them learn better. I would like to believe we are starting the era where technology and pen/paper can be seen as equal learning tools rather than one trying to replace the other.

Meaningful learning through translation

Fantastic writing in English is kind of disreputable, but fantastic writing in translation is the summit – Jonathoan Lethem

There’s a lot of pros and cons for getting language learners to translate, though I question how much is learned from a standard translation task. imagesHowever, in my IB Diploma Spanish Ab initio course I recently prepared a nice little activity which involved translating a text about bullying. Moreover, what made it successful was the peer correcting and reflecting at the end of the task thus making it well rounded. Ab initio courses are special in that it’s not simply a matter of teaching the language, the IB have constructed a SL course where teachers must prepare students to do specific tasks in the target language based on a set of 20 topics. Students should be able to describe pictures and discuss themes, write short paragraphs related to the topics and answer comprehension and language questions on texts. There is also a researched based individual written assignment to top off the challenge. All these must be achieved in less than 2 years making it vigorous, particularly to those who have no prior knowledge of the target language.

When I started last year with my G11’s they were not independent learners and wanted to be spoon fed. It took considerable time explaining the exam criteria and assignments as well as getting them to accept my approach of learning the language through a series of topics and expecting students to self study grammar and vocabulary with my guidance. After covering the basics, I slowly started introducing more independent approaches to learning pushing the responsibility onto the learners. Babbel and Duolingo are useful tools for students to pick up the basics alone, although my students didn’t take to it. Duolingo even allows you to set up groups for teachers.

Now in the second year of the course, as any teacher with G12 students, I worry too much about their progress and am pushing them to be able to achieve at their best in the final exam. I have noticed that this year most of my students have achieved a fairly good level Spanish where the work done in the first year somehow all starts to advance. We still have a long way to go, but my constant identifying areas of study for each individual and pushing them seems to be paying off. Recently we read some articles about bullying, one of the more complex themes related to the topic of education. From the texts read and Paper 1 preparation I prepared a simple vocabulary quiz (formative assessment) to confirm the students were studying the vocabulary.

To take it a step further I came across a short summary written by a English Ab initio student on a similar text on bullying. Mr Fernando and Antonio Luna provide very complete resources for this course. It seemed like a nice little task to round of the theme. My students are unfortunately very google translate (or any other translator) orientated.

Final translation
Final translation

I have been decreasing the use translators by demonstrating the limitations from our course perspective and reminding them they will not be allowed to use it in the final exam. It’s a useful tool for specific moments. Rather than simply asking students to translate the text and correct it, I approached it as follows. In pairs I asked students to to translate the text with a good old dictionary as their only external tool. I then mixed pairs allowing them to compare one translation with another. Next, students were asked to compare these and make a third translation which was fused from the first attempts. This forces to students to discuss and examine the language they used and also requires them to collaborate and think at higher levels. Finally, I projected my translation and got the students to copy it and compare differences with their texts. We discussed specific grammar structures, vocabulary and reflected on differences between English and Spanish. The sensation I got after the class is that students had successfully learned from this activity, worked collaboratively and my role was guiding and facilitating rather than spoon feeding content.