Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Adjective Attack: Descriptive Language Idea

I'd like to share a 3-5 minute tactic that allows your students to describe something you've just read or looked at. This idea is wonderful for developing vocabulary and practicing descriptive language.  It's called Adjective Attack.  Here's how it works.

My class is currently reading James and Giant Peach by Roald Dahl.  We were looking at the pictures in the book together and wondering out loud what could be going on in this part of the book.  A picture walk through is a great pre-reading tactic to promote inferring, and as a way to activate schema (read this post for more information about schema). We came upon a picture of a tunnel that leads to the peach pit. The picture shows peach juice dripping and oozing through the inside of the tunnel.  I thought this picture would serve as a perfect place to have my students practice Adjective Attack. Roald Dahl is well known for his descriptive language, so I wanted my students to have a go at descriptive language too.

I asked my students to think about 2-3 adjectives that would best describe the tunnel. I gave them some think time, and then ask them to pair up with a neighbor. Once everyone has a partner, they share their ideas with each other. By the way, this pairing idea is called, "Think-Pair-Share".

I briskly walk around each group as they share, listening for great adjectives. Sometimes I don't hear adjectives, but other parts of speech. I don't correct that student on the spot, because I want to make sure I get to every pair before they finish sharing, but I will come back to address the miscue later.

Once every partnership is done sharing their adjectives with their partner, I pull sticks to have students share their ideas with the class (see this post for more on using craft sticks).  When the sharing is done,  I do the correcting of the mistaken part of speech that I heard minutes earlier. I don't point anybody out, I simply say, "As I was walking around I heard ___. That word was actually a noun, a great noun to be sure, but not an adjective."

This idea could be customized to fit any skill you wish your students to practice, just change the name. Here are just a few ideas:
  • Other parts of speech
  • Pronouns
  • Affixes
  • Transition words
  • Story beginnings (leads)
I hope you'll get to use this idea in your classroom soon!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Gradual Release of Responsibility Idea: Side by Side

If you have a student that is having a hard time with a new concept or skill, and needs that helping hand, you might want to try this idea. It seems like I've seen this idea before, but in case I haven't, I'll call it Side by Side until I hear otherwise.

Henry is puzzled
I recently used Side by Side with a student, let's call him Henry. Henry wasn't quite getting the multiplication of decimals. He is one of my students who doesn't feel confident about his math abilities either. To help Henry become a self sufficient mathematician, he needs to learn to do it on his own with out my help. This is where the Gradual Release of Responsibility (GRR) teaching theory comes in.

Basically, GRR boils down to the following steps, using math as an example:
  1. The teacher models how to multiply decimals as the students watch.
  2. The students try a problem with the teacher.
  3. The students do a problem on their own as the teacher observes their work and gives feedback and correction.
  4. The students work independently on the problems.
Sometimes a student can display independence, but then runs into some tougher problems that throw them for a loop, especially if they don't feel confident in their math abilities. As was the case with Henry.

We began with me showing him how to do a couple of problems on scratch paper. Then I divided another piece of scratch paper in fourths. To get a visual please see the image below. My writing is in purple and Henry's is in black pen. We do a problem together, step by step. Then I start to give him more and more responsibilities until he has taken full control with very few nudges from me.

Henry is feeling good
After a while, Henry was on his own and going strong. Judging from his smile I think he was feeling pretty good.

This idea could be used for just about any content area, not just math. Writing sentences with sparkling word choice, drawing diagrams of food webs, drawing a compass rose, or writing words with a certain spelling patterns, and much more are all fair game.

It's really an easy tactic. I hope you find it as useful as I did.

Monday, April 18, 2011

My Favorite Modern Educational Revolutionaries

A colleague and I often discuss how much simpler education should be. We talk about how music, fine arts, and creativity are (some, not all) school reformers' red-headed step child. How teachers (some, not all) should be teaching kids to be learners rather than filling them with facts and hoping they remember. Why teachers (some, not all) are still practicing under the belief that they are the only source of information their students have when we are so clearly not?

We also discuss how slowly real change will occur if policy makers continue to emphasize the importance of standardized testing.

How do we rank among the other developed nations of the world?--let's look at test scores.
Are students learning?--let's look at test scores.
Are teachers effective?--let's look at test scores. 
Are charter schools better than public schools?--let's look at test scores. 
Does a school deserve funding?--let's look at test scores.
(Notice a pattern here?)


Policy makers know best. Surely standardized test scores, and the subsequent, "teaching to the test" are the right paths we need to tread in order for our students to become globally competitive. Let's measure a teacher's effectiveness with standardized tests and then, if the tests scores are high enough, let's pay them more, even though we know full well that each classroom of students is vastly different. That will surely solve everything!

Not so fast.

Enter stage left, my top three modern-day educational revolutionaries: Sir Ken Robinson, Will Richardson, and Alfie Kohn. I appreciate these guys because I agree with them. They make sense to me. They push my thinking. It's because of them that I find myself in the midst of a complete teaching transformation--a renewal.

Sir Ken Robinson
Let me begin with Sir Ken. I was first introduced to Sir Ken through his TED Talk about how an antiquated educational system is teaching students out of their inherent creativity (see video below).

In his presentation I heard things that struck me to the core as an educator. It confirmed my suspicions that we are over-emphasizing "testable" areas of education and under-emphasizing areas that matter just as much as reading, writing, and arithmetic. When I was done listening to his words, I asked myself, "What am I doing?".

Alfie Kohn
Alfie Kohn is an educational researcher and author of several books on education policy. I first heard about Alfie while taking a class in my undergraduate studies. I was intrigued by his book, Punished By Rewards, which took a shot at the reasoning behind giving students grades. Alfie is known for attacking educational practices that aren't substantiated by research, yet passed off as if they were. He speaks against the misrepresentation of educators, a fierce defender of what is best for kids, and questions why current "school reform" isn't working. (Listen to this radio interview).

Several years later I got to hear Alfie speak in Kentwood, Michigan. He spoke about homework, rather the needlessness of homework, based on his book The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Are Getting Too Much of a Bad Thing. After his presentation, I asked myself, "What am I doing?". 

Will Richardson
Last, but certainly not least, is Will Richardson. Will is the author of the book, Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and Other Powerful Web Tools, speaker, and expert blogger on how education can be changed for the better. He came to my school district to talk about leveraging technology in the classroom, and how to push students into becoming creators, not just consumers, of information.  Will was one of the first teachers to use blogging in the classroom. I was inspired by his passionate counseling of "You can do this. Why aren't you doing this?"

Will is a forward thinker who demands that education, as we know it, should change--needs to change.  He pushes against educational dogma. Why standardized tests? Why standardized standards? Are all students in all of the states alike? (watch this video). After listening to his talk at my school, and reading his blog posts on Weblogg-ed I ask myself, "What am I doing?".

What I truly appreciate about all three men is they are looking beyond standardized tests (rightly so) as the key to improving education.  What's more, they are fighting the good fight on our behalf. They ask: Why are the policy makers, in a vain attempt at measuring learning on a state, national, and global scale, mandating ideas that do not work? Why are the few (who aren't teachers by the way) driving the policies that many must follow with very little input from the people in the trenches?

Keep it simple. Let's teach the child. Let's hear from the teachers.

Noticing a pattern here? That's why I appreciate them.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Formative Assessment: "I Would Like..." Quick Write

Targeted Learning
I've written about formative assessment in earlier posts.  Here is another idea to help target what each of your students need. There isn't a snappy name for it, no acronym either, it's called I Would Like...

Students write a quick note to the instructor about which skills they wish to improve. I used this idea immediately after my students self-corrected a BrainPop! quiz about fractions. I asked them to write me a little note on their quiz paper about what they would like to practice more.  I gave them some guidelines to help them construct their responses.
  • Be specific on which area(s) you'd like to have more help.
  • If you feel comfortable with fractions already, how would you like to be challenged?
  • Be honest with yourself. Honesty will help you grow as a learner.
  • Keep your responses to 2-3 complete sentences please.
Keeping the responses to 2-3 sentences does two things. One, it keeps the activity efficient. It takes approximately five minutes, and provides quality insight into student needs. Second, the responses are succinct and will make for quick reading on my end.

I was pleased with the written feedback my students gave me. I've shared two examples of student responses below.

Student Response
After reading their quick writes, I made little piles of the responses that had similar areas of need. I used these piles to help me make small groups with which to work. There are three wonderful benefits to grouping students in this way. The groups are skill-based, not ability-based. The lessons are focused on what the student wants to learn, so there is student need already in place. The skills are targeted and focused, so we will make great use of classroom time by tackling what they're lacking, and/or demanding deeper understanding.

Student Response

I can't wait to see my students, get them in groups, and help them overcome their challenges. I'll feel satisfied, and more importantly they will feel satisfied.

I hope you use this quick and effective idea in your classroom soon.