C is for Collaboration

Working TogetherI recently had an exchange with the parent of one of my advisees. He shared a paper his older daughter wrote in college with me. I don’t have permission to reprint any of it here, but she made some interesting comments about collaboration in schools. She made the comment that academics collaborate all the time on lab reports and journal articles, but collaboration among undergraduates and K-12 students is more rare. In some extreme cases, we might call it cheating.

I recently tried out a new way of teaching writing which involves collaboration. You can read my posts about here:

I have had an opportunity to present how it works both to my own colleagues and at a local conference (here’s hoping NCTE is interested as well; we find out next month). One of the things I pointed out both times is that if we write professionally, we expect to have an editor. No one says we don’t really know how to write on our own if someone edits our work. No one says we’re cheating. Yet, with students, I have heard teachers argue that students need to write in isolation. As I mentioned in the post, I have seen students revise much more often now that we are doing writing workshop, but one of the other byproducts of writing workshop has been a classroom community that I didn’t anticipate. I have noticed it even if we’re not writing. Students are friendly and collegial with one another. They have learned to value each other’s voices and opinions. They work together readily.

We were recently working on multigenre writing projects in the classroom, and as I came in the room and prepared to start class, I noticed two students who had both chosen to write about Edgar Allan Poe sitting together. They do not normally sit right next to each other. They had their heads together sharing their work with each other and talking about the different types of writing they were doing for the project. Would another teacher have wanted to keep them apart because they were working on similar projects? Possibly. Why? They shared great ideas with each other, and their projects will be stronger for the sharing and feedback. I think we are afraid sometimes that it is not original work if students collaborate, but truthfully, we often benefit from models. Models can show us how to do something and give us ideas we might otherwise not have had. A recent study by Thomas N. Wisdom, Xianfeng Song, and Robert L. Goldstone from University of Indiana explores the ways in which social learning can improve problem solving. The implications of the study suggest that sharing ideas and encouraging individuals to work as a team will result in better learning:

The results of both experiments show that imitation can be productive for groups as well as individuals, because it enables the preservation of good tentative solutions in “group memory” and their further improvement through cumulative exploration. These results also showed that the pursuit of larger amounts of exploration can result in diminishing returns for both individuals and groups. (Wisdom, Song, and Goldstone 1419)

One of the things I have noticed about writing workshop is that students often open their laptops and revise their own writing when we are collectively editing a peer’s paper. They notice something they want to change or that they want to try, or they have an idea based on something their peer has said. As such, my students’ writing has strengthened a great deal over the course of the year.

Students might not necessarily go on to be professional writers, but often, the situations in which professional writers work mimic the writer’s workshop more than writing in isolation does. Journalists always collaborate. It’s understood that an editor and copyeditor will work on a journalist’s writing. The writing room for just about every television show you can name involves collaborative writing. Students can apply these skills to the other work that they do.

Students have commented on first trimester course evaluations that the class is “like a family” and that they are “always collaborating.” Second trimester, one student said they “are asked to work together and by ourselves. We do a lot of group work.” The same student added that I make “sure we understand things before we move on.” Another student remarked that the class is “an opportunity to meet challenges.” I share these comments because I think they are a window into how establishing a classroom community and offering opportunities for collaboration helps students learn better and enjoy their learning more. We are reading article after article about the skills employers are looking for in college graduates, and over and over, we read that the ability to work as a team and to collaborate and to communicate well are important. However, we are strangely selective about the opportunities we give students to collaborate. We rarely allow students to write together, and having seen the ways in which collaborating in this way have not only contributed to my students’ ability to write but has also built a strong classroom community, I’m convinced that collaborative learning like writer’s workshop is the way to prepare students for the real work of the world.

Work Cited:

Wisdom, Thomas N., Xianfeng Song, and Robert L. Goldstone. “Social Learning Strategies in a Networked Group.” Cognitive Science 37 (2013): 1383-1425. Print.

Image by Lolly Man

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B is for Books

443545349_fee917a0ca1As teachers of English, one of our goals is that students will become lifelong readers. We hope they will understand that reading is a great tool for understanding the world around us. In the words of Mark Twain, “The man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read.” We read articles like this one at The Washington Post, and we’re frightened about the future, which is starting to look more and more like this:

Photo by Will Lion

Photo by Will Lion

We are concerned about the state of reading in the world, and we long to foster a lifelong love of reading in our students. But how to do it?

I am afraid that so much of what we do in our English language arts classes kills the desire to read that most students seem to have when they first learn to read in elementary school. I don’t have all the solutions, and I am sure I’ve been a part of the problem at times (for various reasons), but here are some issues I often see:

  • Students don’t read for pleasure. They read what is required (if they read that).
  • Students have no choices about what they read. The most common form of reading seems to be the whole-class literature study (more on that in a minute).
  • Everything students read is assessed. They are accountable for every page.
  • Schools and teachers cram the curriculum with as many texts as possible rather than go deep with fewer texts.
  • The whole-class literature study often focuses on literature that students do not like and have difficulty relating to.
  • Some teachers have trouble helping students find the literature selections relevant to themselves and their world.
  • We don’t allow students to express their opinions about the books (and they should be taught to back those opinions up with textual evidence), so they learn to feel weird if they don’t like the characters or stories.
  • If it’s fun, and they would choose to read it on their own, it tends not to be something we’d consider for classroom reading, and we wind up teaching students that reading is something that is supposed to be hard work instead of hard (or not hard) fun.
  • We tell them what to read over the summer and don’t allow them choices about how to spend their reading “free” time, either.

I don’t know what you remember about elementary school reading, but I remember we were allowed to pick a lot of the books we read. We had a lot of choices. I used to pick audio books about dinosaurs. I listened to them all the time. I liked the audio books because they taught me how to pronounce the dinosaurs’ difficult names correctly. I do remember sometimes sitting in a circle with the teacher and reading stories out of a basal reader, but I don’t remember hating it. Other students for whom learning to read was difficult might have a different memory, however. I chose books all the time, and teachers read books to us, and I really liked that, too.

Partly, we need to do a good job educating parents. They need to read to their children, and they need to model enjoyment of reading for their children. We need to continue to allow students to make choices about their reading as they go through middle and high school. Are they going to choose to read YA fiction? Yes, some of them will. We need to stop thinking of that as some kind of crime. One of the things I detest in some adults is book snobbery. Some adults I know actually look down their noses at readers who like to read genre fiction or comic books. I mean, we all know real readers read Lit-ra-chure (you have to read that word in your poshest, snobbiest accent). I have never met a K-12 student who is a book snob.

I give reading quizzes all the time, but I stopped giving tests some years ago. I don’t find testing students on the details of their reading comprehension after we’ve done a unit to be all that helpful. I use quizzes mainly to make sure students do read, but the questions tend to be open-ended questions about the connections they make and their opinions. I don’t hold them accountable for every page. Do students sometimes not do their reading for my class? Probably. As a result, they don’t have the opportunity to engage in the discussion, and they missed out on a good book. Too bad for them. A student’s education belongs to that student, and they have to be responsible to themselves for choosing not to engage.

Alternative assessments are also fun. One of my favorites is a Cartoon “Did You Read” Quiz (you might need to join the Making Curriculum Pop Ning to see it, but it’s worth it—great Ning). Or why not use quizzes as a chance to engage with the text and characters: “What did you think about the way Okonwo treated Nwoye?” or “Which character do you like best so far and why?” Give students more opportunities to wrestle with the text through Socratic seminar discussions. I just did a Socratic seminar over the first seven chapters of Things Fall Apart this week, and it was amazing. You should have heard the kids speak. Did they read it? Most of them did, and they were quite articulate about what they read. A couple of students missed out. I feel bad for them. It was a really interesting discussion, and they were left out.

Cramming as many texts into a curriculum as we can is meant, I think, to look like rigor, but what winds up happening is that we cover a book more superficially rather than having deep and engaging discussions and writing reflectively about the reading. I don’t agree that we are doing students a favor by “exposing” them to a large number of texts when they can’t delve deeply. If they engage deeply with a fewer number of texts, they will develop a fondness for reading that will lead them to more reading. It would be interesting to do a study some time, but it’s hard because you’d need to have a control group. I’m not volunteering my students, and I can’t think of teachers who would (at least, not intentionally). And so what if they never read Nineteen-Eighty-Four? I haven’t. And I’m still alive. (I do plan to read it at some point, though.)

I admit I love the whole-class literature study, and I do it a lot, but why not try to integrate more choice? Why not literature circles? Why not allow students to pick three Poe stories to read instead of assigning the same ones to each student? Why not allow them to find poems to bring to class to discuss? I think students do benefit from discussing a book with a whole class, but we should think about which selections we teach. The intended audience for many of the novels we teach tends to skew older than our students. I happen to love The Scarlet Letter and Ethan Frome, but I can see why a tenth grade boy might not. On the other hand, I think some teachers can teach these novels, even to teenagers, and make them relevant and interesting. We need to help students make connections to the characters in the literature they read and to understand the ways in which literature mirrors our society.

Students need opportunities to choose what they read so that they will learn what they like to read. If we choose every single text they read, even their summer reading, when do they have an opportunity to figure that out? And if they don’t like what they read in class, isn’t it logical for them to assume they don’t like reading and choose not to do it after they graduate? I think often we discourage thoughtful criticism of books students read, too. I think students should feel free not to like a book and to express those feelings. We need to teach them to articulate their reasons. “Because it sucks” doesn’t fly, but students should feel safe in expressing their opinions. I struggle with this idea sometimes, too, and my students don’t always love the books I wish they loved. It makes me sad when they don’t love those books. There are a lot of books I don’t love, however, that other people really love. I think we have to let go. In the same way we should stop dictating every reading selection, we should also stop dictating how students should feel about the reading selections. And yes, I do think how one feels about a book is important. We become lifelong readers because of how books make us feel.

I don’t have all the answers, but we should be having conversations about this issues.

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A is for Assessment

ExamI have thought for some time that if I ever get myself together enough to write a book in the field of education, my subject would be assessment. It’s probably the issue I think about the most often. It truly bothers me that it’s done so poorly—not just with standardized tests, but also in classroom settings. It’s too big for a blog post, but I will put a few of my thoughts together.

Several years ago, and some of you have been reading this blog long enough to remember, I read Understanding by Design by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe. When I read that book, things really clicked for me. I cannot honestly say that I create UbD units for everything I teach, but one aspect of UbD that has really stayed with me is authentic assessment. I don’t give tests, even though UbD says tests are fine in addition to performance tasks. I give quizzes, but rarely with multiple choice, true/false, or other types of purely objective questions. I tend to ask more open-ended questions that require students to tell me what they know about a given topic. Aside from these types of quizzes, the main types of summative assessments I give are writing assignments, discussions, and projects.

Our school is incorporating more project-based learning. Project-based learning is not the same thing as doing projects. I have had to do plenty of projects in school that were more or less busy work and didn’t demonstrate much learning. Those old dioramas come to mind. Quite a few posters come to mind as well. However, I do recall doing some projects as a part of project-based learning that required deeper learning. For instance, in the sixth grade, I created a tour guide for Venezuela. I am sure that my social studies teacher required certain elements, such as tourist destinations, exchange rates, and the like, but what I remember is researching the country and creating the pages in my guide so that I my readers could learn everything they needed to know about the country in order to prepare for a visit. I still remember showing the project to my language arts teacher, who told me, “Oh, now I want to go to Venezuela.” I remember doing the work and what I learned because it was an authentic assessment that placed me in the role of a tour guide writer who needed to convince readers to visit a country, and it felt fantastic when my language arts teacher liked the project. My social studies teacher easily could have asked us to write a research report that included the same information, but I doubt I’d still be remembering the research report more than 30 years later, nor would I remember what I’d learned about Venezuela. The most important thing is that I did all the work. I did the reading and research. I created the tour guide. My teacher must have given me class time, but I recall sitting by myself in the library, with a copy of Fodor’s Travel Guide, encyclopedias, and other books.

One of the reasons I am an advocate for authentic, project-based assessment is that I have seen the students’ engagement in the learning, and I have seen how it helps students to learn and remember more of what they learn. There is a saying that has been bandied around to the point of cliché, but it’s worth sharing at this point:

Franklin Quote

Some years ago, a student gave me a card that I have cherished. In it, she wrote that she felt the work she did in my class was relevant. To be quite honest, the work I assigned, especially before I became thoughtful about designing for understanding and authentic assessment, was not always relevant. In fact, it often wasn’t. Students should understand why what they are learning is important and what they might do with it in the future. We’re not always great at communicating the importance of the work we assign. We need to reflect on the work we ask students to do. We need to determine what it is that we want students to learn, and we need to plan lessons and assessments that will help the students learn that information. We also need to give students agency and choices. Students should have a role in selecting reading and writing assignments. They should be given opportunities to discuss what they are learning in their reading and writing, too. It is in this way that we can involve students so that they learn.

None of that is to say that we do away with essays or tests, but we need to ask students to apply what they are learning in our classes so that they understand they’re not learning it for a test. I have only scratched the surface and don’t feel I’ve said a whole lot here, but please check out some of my other posts on assessment for more, and of course, more will come, as I can’t seem to leave this topic alone. (See tags and category links below for more on assessment.)

Chalkboard background: Karin Dalziel

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Alphabet Challenge

Typewriter KeysI’ve been having a lot of trouble blogging lately. Given the number of updates, it’s probably not surprising. On the one hand, it is hard to set aside the time, but one thing I always say is that we make time for the things that are important to us. Blogging, for one reason and another, became less important to me. On the other hand, I actually do find blogging important. It helped me become a better, more reflective teacher. Thinking about teaching and learning, and articulating those thoughts here, really did improve my teaching. I credit the fact that I am a good teacher today to the years I spent regularly blogging about teaching.

I worked with a first-year teacher who sat down at the end of the day and wrote about how things went that day and reflected on what he’d change. He intended to use it as he planned the lessons the following year. It’s an excellent practice. I wish I had thought to do it. I have tried journaling offline many times, and I have come to the conclusion that it helps me to have people to bounce ideas around with. I was recently reading this article in which Paul McCartney’s writing process was one of many topics, and he mentioned that he still imagines how John Lennon would react to ideas as he is kicking them around.

One idea I had that I thought might help me get back into the practice of blogging more regularly is to create a challenge for myself. I decided I’d call it the Alphabet Challenge. I plan to write about an educational question or issue for each letter of the alphabet. It will not be easy for some letters, but I hope it will push me. I know the minute I set myself a schedule, I won’t keep to it because something will happen. On the other hand, if I make it too loose, I will stall out around letter E or F. I don’t want to do that, either. I want to try to give myself a Sunday deadline, then. If I write it earlier than Sunday, so much the better. If I’m ready to move on to the next letter in the same week, that’s great—even better. But the goal is at least once a week.

Anyway, here goes. No fair taking bets on how long I last.

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