Adolescent literacy learning #3 – comprehension and critical thinking

The other week, my colleagues and I attended another Adolescent Literacy Learning session with Dr. Kevin Feldman. This session focused on comprehension strategies and critical thinking skills. As always, I’d like to share my important takeaways. These ideas work for all subjects across all grade levels, not just for foreign language.

  • Before we can even work on comprehension, students have to be in the game. We should be pushing them into active cognitive processing – students should always be doing SOMETHING mentally (not spacing out) and just as importantly, they need to be able to show us, the teachers, what they’re thinking. This could consist of responding verbally to a question, responding to a written prompt, creating a product, or any other kind of way of making their thinking visible. We were asked to self-evaluate and I rated myself very highly in this regard because with TPRS/CI strategies, active participation is the name of the game.
  • We talked about how comprehension consists of extracting and reconstructing. There are many pitfalls for students in both areas. Students might have trouble extracting the information they need due to deficiencies in vocabulary, or they might be able to understand the information but have difficulty justifying or qualifying their responses.
  • One thing that makes a huge difference is background knowledge. This is probably the key hurdle to comprehension. For example, my students tend to come from farming backgrounds. Sometimes they talk about problems with their farm equipment, and even though I technically know the words they’re saying, they might as well be speaking Russian. If we were being assessed on a reading passage about farm equipment, my kids would destroy me because their background knowledge is much deeper than mine. I also think this is an easy, easy pitfall for teachers to run into – to assume that because it was technically taught in a previous grade or class, that students will correctly remember that information. I try not to make that mistake. So that’s why, for example, I take a day and talk about fascism vs. communism and the Spanish Civil War when starting my art unit in Spanish 3. On the surface, economic systems have nothing to do with art, but when we look deeper, students need to understand the personal lives and beliefs of the artists to understand their art and contributions. Another difficulty related to background knowledge is a student’s ability to make inferences. If they don’t have sufficient understanding of the key points of the passage, they can’t read between the lines to understand a more subtle point that the author is trying to make.

Okay, so after discussing the background information that WE needed to be able to discuss the particular strategies, we delved more deeply into the strategies themselves.

  • Summarize – this one is pretty self explanatory, since every teacher since the beginning of time has asked for summaries. Some specific strategies included paragraph shrinking (write a gist statement in 10-15 words) or RAP (read, ask what’s the main idea, put in your own words).
  • One really cool summary strategy that would be awesome for literature circle type work is reciprocal teaching. In this strategy, students are in small groups where each person is assigned a role. The roles are predict, clarify, question, summarize. We also watched a video illustrating the strategy where the teacher switched out ‘clarify’ for ‘read aloud’ as the students worked through The Great Gatsby. I couldn’t find the exact video we watched, but this similar video gives a great walkthrough of the concept.
  • Teach students metacognition. Frequently stop to reflect and ask/answer questions. (For those of us in foreign language, this is also great practice to push students into the intermediate level where they can create their own questions rather than copying ours!) If they can’t answer the question on the first read-through or listen, how can they go back into the reading or audio and find it?
  • The one that I’ve been focusing on in my class is close reading. I think the concept of close reading is probably more familiar to reading teachers or elementary interventionists, but I hadn’t heard of it before the last ALL session. However, it’s possible that you already do a form of it and just don’t know it! Close reading is used for difficult readings – you know, the like the kind teachers have students do, not for fun and easy reading. In a close reading, students are asked to complete different tasks like underline the 3 most important ideas, draw a shape around words they don’t know, draw a shape around essential vocabulary, put a ?  by things they don’t understand, etc. Basically, it requires them to annotate and again, justify their thinking. They have to do multiple, thorough reads in order to accurately complete the work. Of course, after having them annotate, it’s very easy to segue into active cognition by having them share their ideas with a partner and then share out some ideas with the whole class for discussion.
  • Something that is particularly important for foreign language is teaching the vocabulary for having a good discussion – I agree because, I disagree because, I have a different opinion, I’d like to add, please explain, etc. It’s much easier for students to stay in the target language if they have the language tools to do so!

I hope you find these strategies as useful as I have. Again, these ideas are simple tweaks that make good teachers into great teachers. Stay tuned for a post about how I’ve implemented close reading strategies in my Spanish 2 class in the near future!

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accidental IPA

I will be the first to tell you that I don’t really use IPAs (aka integrated performance assessments). I know, I know, they’re a great form of assessment but they require a level of strategy and pre-planning that is just not my strong suit. Except this year, I realized that I think one of my assessments is accidentally an IPA. It comes at the end of my Spanish 1 food unit, which has morphed over the years from a matching test with words and pictures to writing about favorite foods to now, preparing for a party and presenting it to the class. (If I had time, we’d also potentially pick our favorite party and then have it in class, but we had snow days this year so that didn’t work out.)

I originally got the idea to have a party plan assessment from Chris Pearce’s amazing teaching comic, Teachable Moments. (Side note: if you don’t regularly read Chris’s comic, you should.) One of the things that he did with his class is a Killing Mr. Griffin party project, and I thought it sounded super cool so I wanted to recreate a similar thing with my classes. I also wanted to be able to recycle my target vocabulary, and through some teaching wizardry, my party project accidental IPA was born.

The presentational mode

My students worked in groups to create a party theme with invitations, snacks, decorations, and activities. They were given 2 days in class to do this. On the 3rd day, they presented.

The presentational mode instructions and rubric

The interpretive mode

When the students were presenting, I didn’t want the rest of the class to be sitting around doing nothing. (In my experience, this means I have to ask every group to restate something at least once because I was busy telling the other members of the class to be quiet.) So I created an interpretive listening organizer with some very basic questions for them to fill out as the other groups presented. This kept them on task so I could focus on the presenters.

The interpretive graphic organizer (I have two pages since I have a different number of groups in each class)

The interpersonal mode

Finally, when the groups were presenting, I also warned them that they would be asked a question or two about their party. Since they’re novices, I stuck to pretty familiar topics that rehashed what they told me about their party – stuff like ‘So, was your group bringing chips or pizza? What kind of pizza?’ or ‘Wait, I forgot, is the party on Wednesday or Friday?’ Of course, I can push the limits by asking my more advanced students more difficult questions or follow-up questions, or lob an easy yes/no question at my strugglers.

I graded the overall project on two metrics: 5 points for their written product and for their interpretive paper. The major focus was on their speaking ability as assessed through the interpersonal and presentational mode, worth 15 points. Overall, the students did wonderfully and I think the project is finally how I like it.

Useful advice for teachers

Earlier this week, I posted Useless Advice for Teachers. Since I try to be a positive person, I thought I’d share some advice that actually was useful in my career. Most of these involve the phrase, ‘Time is money, friend.’ from the goblins of World of Warcraft. There are only 24 hours in a day, and you only live once. Being a miserable is not worth it, and teaching is a job that can quickly cause burnout if you’re not careful. So here are my bits of helpful advice:

  • Take care of yourself first. By now, you’ve probably heard the phrase or seen the meme that says ‘You can’t pour from an empty cup.’ This is definitely true for teachers, which is exhausting in a multitude of ways. Even a day where students are mostly self-directed requires a ton of multitasking and decision making on the part of the teacher. If you are tired, hungry, sick, or grumpy, it will affect your ability to teach well. Obviously, you can’t just skip work every time you don’t feel well, but it’s super important for us to be taking care of our physical and mental health. Get enough sleep. Eat decent food. See a doctor if you’re sick – yes, even if you have to take a day off and your students will probably not make a lot of progress on the day you’re gone. The students will learn a lot less if you have to take multiple days off to recover from a more severe illness! Martina Bex just had a fantastic post for those kinds of days where you literally can’t even – you can find it here. (While this post was sitting in draft-land, I also ran across this wonderful article called “When is it okay to say you’ve done ‘enough’ for a student?” which discusses the pressure put on teachers to give 110% to every student every day, regardless of the personal repercussions.)
  • Grade only what you have to. In the same vein of taking care of yourself, one thing that keeps many teachers up late at night and working through their lunch break is grading. Some advice that I received in college that is part of my teaching mantra is to grade only what I have to. From the get-go, I have only put in 2-3 weekly formative assessment grades and a summative grade every few weeks. In fact, my biggest problem is forgetting to do summative assessments. I am constantly informally assessing students. With every question I ask, I am wondering, ‘Do you get it?’ If a student can’t answer, then I know we need to back up and try again. Even such minimal grading with only a pool of about 65 students still takes me hours each week. And I know it’s much worse for most other teachers. Grading is also something that can wait. Truly, your students will not suffer if you take another day to return daily classwork. (However, the caveat is that you need to return graded-for-accuracy or graded-for-content work within a reasonable amount of time so that students have adequate time to self-evaluate and improve before the summative assessment.) But if the choice is skipping lunch to grade papers, or to take a brain break and eat a legitimate meal? Eat the meal.
  • Pick your battles. In any kind of situation where there is an inherent power imbalance, there are going to be power struggles. Let the small stuff go. Kids are going to sneak peeks at their cell phone. They’re going to eat candy even if they’re not supposed to. And then there are the students who will, intentionally or not, attempt to bait you into a fight for whatever reason. One of the most important skills to being a successful classroom manager is knowing when to push and when to back off. However, we all get it wrong from time to time. Don’t fight yourself over that, either.
  • Don’t reinvent the wheel. In most cases, you’ll need to adapt lessons to fit your particular class and their needs. However, there are plenty of materials available (for cheap or free) that are good enough, especially if you’re hurting for downtime. (See point #1!) Any lessons that I post on here are free for use or adaptation by others, and many other bloggers follow a similar policy. With the advent of the internet, you can spend your entire career looking for or building ‘the perfect plan’ without ever taking the time to teach it! So use what you can, adapt what you need, and keep some of your own sanity.
  • You control the atmosphere of your classroom. Although we cannot control what our students choose to do, we are completely in control of what the atmosphere of our room is like. Is it going to be noisy or quiet? Are students going to be working individually or in groups? Is it going to be a safe space, or a place where students have to be on guard? I think the biggest point here is that we also control the overall tone of the room, which goes way back to point #1 of this post. If you lose your cool and let your room turn into a pit of despair, the students will take that and run. I make it a point to be annoyingly cheery, even if I don’t feel that way, because if I’m grouchy, then the students take it as a cue that they can be grouchy too. And then I get even grouchier because I have to deal with disrespectful behavior, and it’s a terrible cycle. As the adult in the room, it is our job to break that cycle. We are professionals. We are not perfect, for sure, but it is on us to do our best to ensure that our classes are positive centers for learning.

What about you? Any other advice that you would contribute as useful advice for the classroom? We could all use a mental pick-me-up right about now!

Useless advice for teachers

When it comes to advice for teachers (especially newer teachers,) I have a pet peeve. It drives me bonkers when I read blogs or twitter posts that are full of feel-good platitudes that don’t actually help anyone. I’m not talking about an encouraging post or anything like that; those are good. Let’s help and support each other. I’m talking about the ones that should theoretically be obvious to teachers or overly simplify a complicated topic. Some of my “favorites” include:

  • Love your students. If you don’t at least marginally like kids (of whatever age you teach) then you won’t make it past student teaching. I guess one could argue that you should love your students even when they’re being unpleasant, but… I figured that’s pretty much a given.
  • Have a behavior management plan. The issue is, I think, that some teachers struggle with enforcing their behavior management plan, not that they don’t have one. I feel like this advice also glosses over the fact that some students are unreachable by us for whatever reasons, or many teachers deal with administrators who won’t back them up when they do use their behavior management plan. And mostly, in my school, our behavior issues stem from teenagers being teenagers. I suppose I could give detentions all day long, but it won’t stop a social butterfly from talking rather than doing his work, or magically cause a forgetful student to remember to do her homework.
  • Create engaging lessons. “I want to be super boring and hope the kids learn nothing from me,” said no teacher ever.
  • Incorporate technology. This one is a bit of a nitpick, but I feel like the techie revolution is overwhelming and dismissive of teachers who are really good teachers but are slower to adapt to the constant barrage of technology changes. Do I think you should incorporate technology into your classroom? Yes, of course. But again, this platitude ignores the fact that some – many? – schools are still struggling to have functional computer labs, much less 1:1 situations. And honestly, you should only use technology if it enhances what you’re already doing. When I do TPRS, I like to type up the stories as I go to give an extra burst of written input. It’s very easy to do with my projector. However, whenever we do illustrations, we always use paper. It’s far easier for me to copy a blank template of six squares than to have students attempt to draw on a laptop trackpad. There is also the problem of students misusing technology to the point where it is a distraction and disruption to your everyday class activities. I don’t mind having to remind a student about my expectations on a regular basis, but this year, I have a class that has such difficulty regulating their behavior on the computer that I might go back to paper with them as the default. It’s not worth the lost time in class or the loss of my patience solely to check the ‘used technology’ box.
  • Encourage your students to do their best. This one needs no explanation.
  • Let your students control the learning. Like some of these other quips, this one is a complicated situation beautifully wrapped up in a shallow one-liner. Students, when left to do what they want to do, generally don’t work on educational activities. So as educators, part of our job is to ensure that students are completing some sort of educational curriculum. After that, I do think that it’s important to include student voice and choice, especially in a subject that can be as free-form as foreign language. However, what happens when your students really don’t want to be in control of their learning? I have a few classes this year that will happily comply with whatever I ask them to do, but if I ask them what they want to do (educationally), they just shrug. They don’t really care – to them, I’m the teacher and it’s my job to tell them what to do. Sadly, they’re not invested enough in their own education to want to give it a direction. In a lot of cases for my Preferred Activity Time, the same handful of kids are the ones that end up choosing what we do since no one else appears to have an opinion. It can be tough.

This post is a full #rantchat, however, I don’t believe in offering criticisms without offering solutions! Later this week, I will be posting a secondary post with advice that I think is actually useful for teachers. Tune in then!