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.

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!

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.

Mind mapping and jigsaw puzzles

mind-mapping

My last blog looked at some aspects of team-teaching from a theoretical point of view which led me to reflect on some of the basic strategies I use when supporting in Social Studies or English Literature classes, where I tend to do most of my EAL support with grade 8 and 10.mind-map-oedipus-themes
This year I started thinking about how I can make myself useful when my role as an EAL specialist puts me in the backseat so to speak. Basically, the subject teacher is running the show and I work in the background, keeping students on task, moving around or simply listening and observing. As a result it became fairly clear that only a few students were taking notes or annotating texts during readings and discussions. At first I moved around and asked why individuals weren’t doing this. Sometimes I even wrote down the notes with the intent of giving them a sample of what could be jotted down. Many students just need a push to get started but different strategies work better with some than others. I started searching for visible learning strategies and reviewing the ATL skills (see attachment) to try different approaches and see if students would start to get the importance of having good note-taking skills. The result being that this week more students have started to take notes without being reminded!

Most of the colleagues I have worked with over the years showed me something useful, so I started with something I picked up from a dear colleague at a previous teaching position. My friend mastered the skill of mind mapping and this was the perfect way to help groups to develop my students note-taking skills.  mind-map-tragedyMost upper secondary students seem to be familiar with mind mapping so I just reminded them it was a different way to take notes and they understood the principle strategy. We briefly talked about mind mapping websites and there are plenty around.

One of the areas my students fail in note-taking is writing points, not full sentences, particularly weaker students. In class, it was in these moments when I was in the back seat that I grabbed a board marker and started mind-mapping the elements of the class discussion. A grade 10 unit on short stories and literary elements like setting, characterization, and symbolism gave me the opportunity to mind map on the board while students tried it themselves at their desks. To take things a little further in a later class I invited students to the board to take the notes while there was a “fish tank/goldfish bowl” discussionmind-map-tvotw going on. (An activity where four students sit in the middle of the classroom and discuss elements of short stories they have studied. Around them, as an audience sit the rest of the class, listening and taking notes). What my colleagues and I noticed immediately was how each individual gives it a personal touch or some just invent a new form of mind mapping altogether. I hope to indulge more into developing note-taking skills and maybe even try doodling and drawing as an option to see which students really would prefer using alternatives to words.

 screen-shot-2016-11-23-at-2-24-13-pmoedipus-rubric-cut-up

The second strategy I want to mention is old but great because we all like a little jigsaw puzzle now and again (also popular with curriculum development workshop leaders). Rubrics are the best thing ever to cut up and hand out to individuals or groups to get them reading, puzzling, and thinking. Making it into a bit of a competition to see who fixes the rubric first can add some friendly competition if needed. Mostly it forces the students to read the descriptors carefully, then, once finished the rubric can be discussed together with the assessment task in a more meaningful way. Students should have a clear idea of the criterion so that in the lesson(s) building up to the assessment regular reminders of specific criterion will make more sense to them. Teacher talk explaining this type of bigger assessment task like an essay shouldn’t be only explained verbally with a handout as not everybody in the class will get it, specially in classes with mixed abilities. Soon I plan to try similar strategies to get students to understand their rubrics better which is fundamental if they are expected to achieve well.