Thursday, March 27, 2008

Stream of consciousness

Four days left, including today, of my spring break. I spent the morning grades three tests I left for the substitute to give while I took an extra day off to start my break.

Grading these tests has stimulated my thinking about my teaching and testing style. And driving back from Pennsylvania yesterday gave me lots of time to think about the transition to classical that our school is stepping toward. So much so that I actually stopped for lunch in a restaurant so I could jot down these thoughts and plans before they scurried away from my thinking.

I want to test these thoughts out on my few readers. So bear with me please.

First, about my teaching and testing style. I am a new classroom teacher. Even though I spent twenty years teaching my own four children from the beginning through high school graduation, teaching styles change somewhat (they must change) when the census number increases to more than a dozen. Same ages, but a combination of different learning styles.

Remember I teach sixth grade history and English and eighth grade history (World Studies)? Well, I do not like either textbook. I guess I'm just a spoiled snob about resources. After all, while homeschooling, I could pick and choose. And if what I chose was not working, or if I wanted to skip around to different texts, I could. And I did.

But being in a classroom is different. Even though I might have all the texts at my fingertips, I cannot have one available to every student. So, I decided to make the best with what I had. While homeschooling, I learned that the very best way to ensure that the student was accessing the material was not
simply to assign page numbers to be read and answer some questions about the material. The best way I found to teach during the middle years was to have the student read the text material aloud with me and follow up with discussion in a narrative method. Then the student would be primed for assessment in the form of questions provided by the text.

So, using the text that was decided on for this class (I get to change this for next year, if I choose), we read aloud. I alternate between picking and choosing readers or just reading round-robin. Reading aloud is very important. Students need to learn to read aloud. For some, they just need the confidence to speak aloud in the classroom. For others, they need to know how to pronounce words they would otherwise skip over, if reading or following silently. I can attest that my most reluctant and shy readers have quickly gained confidence and adeptness in reading aloud.

I stop after each section and we discuss the information. I try to relate it to a bigger picture. I use that time to clarify and quiz, and then we continue.

Following the reading, I pass out a reading guide. Again, I'm dissatisfied with the review questions provided by the publisher (I mean, when the publisher has four pages of material and four easy-peesie, short one-word-answer questions for the entire four pages, something is wrong with this assessment alone, in my opinion.).

So, what I've done is to develop a reading guide which is basically the important text material retyped. Sometimes it is the exact few sentences with key words left out and blanks inserted. Sometimes it is a simple question with follow-up questions based on the answer. Also, I've included directions for the student to add things to their map that I always have attached. (And, for Pete's sake, why-oh-why do history text publishers choose not to include maps with the material being discussed??? So, my OCD-self includes the map for the student to use.)

Because we read the text information aloud in class, my reading guide makes the student go back to the text alone to retrieve information and write it down. The first cruise through in class is not sufficient for retention.

In addition, while typing the guide, I try to integrate as much material from grammar as I can. If I use the phrase countries' flags, I give the student three choices to circle for countries' to assess their ability to use the correct possessive apart from sentences in English class. For instance, a recent question was "How is Paraguay's flag different from other country's / countries' / countrys' flags?". The student has to circle the correct possessive form.

Another example of integration is "Is the Uruguayan population literate?" (a simple yes-or-no question) followed by "Justify your answer." The text states "Ninety-seven percent of the population of Uruguay can read and write." The student must make the association that to be literate means "to be able to read and write."

These are seemingly simple understandings to us. But you would be surprised at the students who do not make these connections. They use words from the text that are correct to answer questions, but they do not have enough knowledge of the words, or information, to explain (i.e., justify) their answers.

This sort of integration is what I believe Benjamin Bloom is getting at in his taxonomy. The first and most basic assessment of learning is knowledge, simple recall of information. That's good; we want them to know things. But left at this stage, students are deficient in their ability to think. To get them to think deeper and broader, begin to ask more questions that will assess their understanding by explaining their answer to you. Students do not like to do this. It takes time. It causes them to think. And thinking is not easy.

Another step up is to take the information they have just learned and apply it by illustrating, interpreting, or demonstrating. Within each reading guide, I insert one or two of these assessments. In the most recent guide,

"Brazil is the _____ largest country in the world. More people live in Brazil than in all other _____________ countries combined. How would you illustrate the last sentence? Put your illustration in the box.
The fill-in answers are "fifth" and "South American." I received as many different answers for the illustration as there are students in the class. But not one used a bar graph or pie chart. Of course, that is the first illustration I would have thought to use. But I'm not a sixth grader. And they are a fifty year old! So through this assessment, I know that they do not know how to illustrate this fact. Not only do these reading guides help the students to focus on the material again, the guides help me to see what the students do not understand.

I also include in the reading guide a reduce-sized map of the country under discussion and a couple of blank boxes for the student to practice drawing the country. I just think this is important that they acquaint themselves with the shape of the country and learn to focus on some detail. This type of exercise also helps the student see the country on the map of the continent or world.

I do not grade these guides for right and wrong answers for the most part. I do grade them for completeness and spot-check throughout. After all, if I assign these guides as homework, grading them for completeness ensures that I do mean for them do be completed.

But...........typing these reading guides takes all sorts of time. And I need to evaluate the effectiveness of the guides compared with the time it takes. I'm all for doing whatever it takes to ensure that students learn the material. And I'll continue to type these guides if I'm convinced that they producing the desired effect.

As I grapple with determining the effectiveness of these tools, I covet your top-o'-the head evaluation of such tools. Some teachers I work with pooh-pooh these guides, saying "they're too much work", "the kids don't care anyway", "why go to all that trouble", "they should be able to get it the first time through." To which I silently answer: "yes", "not true", "it's my job", "that's an inaccurate understanding of learning." I do have one teacher-friend who is a solid cheerleader about these reading guides. She's said she's encouraged to begin to make some of her own. I don't advertise these guides to other teachers but they've seen the kids working on them and have asked questions.

Ok...the stream of consciousness has to pause for a while to get some other things done. I'll be back later to post my thoughts about transitioning to classical.


Kathleen Hamilton said...

Janie, I applaud you for working so hard for these kids! I think it's well worth it, even if many of the kids don't care. There will be some for whom it makes a huge difference in their lives. The fellow teacher(s) who said, "They should get it the first time through," are way off! I need to read things over and over again (often from different sources or media) in order to finally understand some difficult concept. I'm teaching a 20th C history/literature class next year, and if I didn't read multiple sources on, say, WWI or the Depression, I would only have vague recollections of the goings-on. If I really want to understand something, I just plain have to have reinforcement. Now, I may have a certain kind of brain that works that way, but surely some of your students do, too.

God bless you!

Camy said...

I love it! Your words about being a spoiled snob about resources certainly rang true with me! Saxon math and I do not, and will NEVER, get along. LOL!

You sound great, Janie.

Enjoy your upcoming, well-deserved vacation :o).

Don't hesitate to share your booklist.

Laura K (NC) said...

I would never be homeschooling if my kids had teachers who cared so much.

I found your defense for reading aloud very interesting. As a young student I found that to be the most tedious part of the school day, but then again I was always a careless (/quick) reader.

I teach Sunday school now with a text and I have never made my students read aloud. There is so much material and so little time I tend to do a socratic-type Q&A instead. I am now rethinking my position on having the students read aloud, especially if I am ever in the position of teaching every day.