Tag Archives: Best practices

What am I doing here?

It seems obvious that students might find it helpful to know what they are going to be learning, and yet, consistently sharing learning intensions with students is a relatively recent phenomenon in most classrooms. –Dylan Wiliam

After a post last week about articulating learning goals, a question was e-mailed to me by an educator who wanted to know if learning goals need to be written on the board for every lesson. Sometimes the objective of a lesson, the educator rightly asserted, is to have students discover answers on their own without direction from a teacher.  A classic example of this is a SOLE lesson, where student inquiry is guided by a single question and Za learning objective is not present. Students are encouraged to discover meaning during their pursuit of an answer. Whether or not teachers should make learning objectives present for students during a SOLE lesson or other inquiry-based activity is a great question as it addresses a fundamental principle of lesson design and classroom management. Namely, how much information do we need to give students so they can answer this question: What am I doing here? Luckily, Dylan Wiliam writes about this dilemma in his recent book, Embedded Formative Assessment, so we can turn to him for an answer. Wiliam and his book are amazing, by the way.

Wiliam calls the sometimes mandated approach of having teachers post a learning objective before each class “wallpaper objective.” Clearly, with a term like this, Wiliam is not in favor of this approach. Wiliam believes that “sometimes it’s not even a good idea to tell the students what the lesson is about” (56). A SOLE lesson is a classic example of this. The point of a SOLE lesson is for students to discover meaning behind a question by working together to make connections between relevant material. Therefore, for Wiliam, it is not necessary to post a learning objective during each class. “Sometimes we can be very specific, such as when we require laboratory reports to be structured in a particular way–diagrams are to be drawn in pencil and labeled, and so on,” explains Wiliam. “At other times, it may be that the best we can do is help the students develop what Guy Claxton calls a ‘nose for quality'” (58). Rubrics can play a part in this process as long as they are shared with students who are given time to think through, in discussion with others, what the rubrics mean.

Wiliam believes that sometimes it is appropriate for the teacher to present learning intentions and success criteria to students at the beginning of a lesson. He shares that teachers of younger students find the acronyms WALT (We are learning to) and WILF (What I’m looking for) to be helpful at informing students of a lesson’s intent. “Unfortunately,” Wiliam writes, “in many districts, the pendulum has swung too far the other way: a lesson is regarded as a bad lesson if the teacher fails to post a learning objective at the start” (69). Wiliam does include in his book some ways learning goals can be reinforced without resorting to “wallpaper.”

Wiliam’s Non-Wallpaper Techniques for Clarifying Goals

  1. Have students look and analyze samples of other students’ work
  2. Peer review where students discuss the quality of their work
  3. Have students design test items with correct answers about what they have been learning

I don’t think it’s necessarily bad if a teacher were to post an objective with every lesson. However, like Wiliam, I don’t think it’s essential for classroom success. If I saw a successful lesson, I would never find fault with a teacher for not writing a learning objective on the board–especially when the point of the lesson might be to have students find their own question-mark-452707_640connections. What makes a genuine difference in a classroom is when a teacher works to ensure that the questions they are asking students are of a high level, that all students get to participate in the learning process, that the problems students try and solve are written clearly and are relevant to learners, and norms have been established in a classroom so students can be given freedom to explore material while staying on task. Oftentimes lessons are not as successful as they can be because one or more of these things are missing. We should always strive to make our lessons and meetings as specific as possible for participants, and agendas, clearly defined learning objectives, and rubrics are a big part of this. “Like everything else in teaching,” Wiliam summarizes, “there are no simple rules, and it is up to the teacher to exercise professional judgement in how best to communicate learning intentions and success criteria to students” (69). It’s important to note that the less students have to wonder “what am I doing here?” the more time they will have to think about a task.

 

Articulating Effective Learning Goals

“When instructors do not clearly articulate their goals, it is difficult for students to know what (or how) to practice.” Susan Ambrose in How Learning Works

As teachers and students enter final exam or benchmark season it’s important to remember a key concept in assessment creation: articulating effective learning goals. These goals, also called objectives, help inform students about what they are supposed to do when they encounter a task. In the book How Learning Works: 7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching, Susan Ambrose and her co-authors explain the importance of using learning objectives to help students have success in class. Objectives can appear in curriculum documents, with project instructions when handed out to students, or in a rubric that is given to students before they begin work on an assessment. “Learning objectives,” explain the authors, “articulate the knowledge and skills you want students to acquire by the end of the course or after completing a particular assignment.” There are numerous advantages to using clearly articulated learning objectives with students:

  1. Communicate intent to students
  2. Provide a framework for organizing course content
  3. Help guide decisions about appropriate teaching and learning activities

Numerous studies have shown that the use of objectives can positively impact student learning. One study from the 1970s found that students who were given specific goals when they were learning from a text paid more attention to passages that were relevant to their goals and hence learned those passages better as they read. Another study conducted a few years ago found that creating a rubric and sharing it with students before they work on an assignment led to better outcomes in terms of the quality of work produced and in the students’ knowledge of the qualities associated with good work (Ambrose et al. 128-130).

An old friend named Benjamin Bloom can help educators create learning objectives through the action verbs contained in his taxonomy. For example, a sample end-of-course learning objective for a dance class shared in How Learning Works could ask students to “execute different choreographic styles” or in an engineering class it could ask students to “analyze simple circuits that include resistors and capacitors.” Bloom’s taxonomy was created in the 1950s and represents six levels of intellectual behavior organized from low-level to high. Action verbs developed by Bloom can help educators create learning objectives that focus on concrete actions and behaviors. “Furthermore,” the authors in How Learning Works explain, “using action verbs reduces ambiguity in what it means to ‘understand.'”

Here is a chart of sample verbs from How Learning Works using Bloom’s Taxonomy:

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Another proponent of using clearly articulated learning goals with students was Grant Wiggins, who passed away a few days ago from a heart condition. In fact, identifying goals is the first step in Wiggins’s theory of curriculum development. I was shocked when I saw a tweet from his daughter sharing the sad news. Wiggins had such a profound impact on my life as an educator with the theory of backward planning he set forth in his book Understanding by Design. However, it was through his blog “Granted, and…” that I felt like I really got to know Wiggins and his philosophy. His blog was a must read for me. In fact, over the past couple of years, I considered his blog the most important resource for educators on the web. His clear prose and ability to publish thought-provoking blog posts every week was inspirational. He was an intellectual leader and champion for good teaching. He will obviously be missed. So, in honor of Wiggins, take a look at a recent assignment given to students. Were you clear in what you expected students to do? In other words, did your instructions to students contain clearly-articulated learning goals (and yes, a rubric really is just a collection of these) that explained what you wanted them to learn?

Let’s Bring Back Dialogue

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In the April issue of Educational Leadership is an article called “The Art of Dialogue.” I think it’s an important read for both teachers and administrators. Oscar Graybill–director of Socratic Seminars International–and Lois Brown Easton discuss the benefits of dialogue in an organization over other forms of communication. “Genuine dialogue affects a school’s culture,” they write. The authors cite a former study that divides talking into four different categories:

  1. Conversation: talk about personal and social matters that is usually not directed or facilitated
  2. Discussion: talk that has a purpose and the purpose is often to make a decision
  3. Debate: talk that is an extreme form of discussion where people are forced to take sides
  4. Dialogue: talk that is more structured than conversation with the goal of engaging people in building their understanding of an issue

These four ways of talking all achieve different results. However, the authors contest that aimages focus on using dialogue during meetings can help people “dig deeper into ideas, become more thoughtful, listen well, recognize assumptions, and see connections.” For organizations, dialogue can help improve how people talk about ideas and can lead to more collaboration.

Learning and practicing dialogue take time. Schools that understand and value the benefits of a culture of shared understanding don’t just find the time—they make the time for teachers to practice both structured and open dialogue. –Oscar Graybill & Lois Brown Easton

I think it’s true that organizations do not make enough time for dialogue. The authors believe that if dialogue is implemented regularly the “resulting power shift breaks down traditional, hierarchical leadership.” I also think it’s true that organizations (and classrooms) need to find the time for genuine dialogue. A good place to start is with establishing norms for what successful dialogue looks like. The authors include a list of fifteen rules for guiding dialogue that I’ve included below. Let’s use them to bring back dialogue!

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Source

Graybill, Oscar, and Lois Brown Easton. “The Art of Dialogue.” Educational Leadership 72.7 (2015): n. pag. Web. 27 April 2015.

Primary Sources & Post-It Notes

This post is by Michael Lonie, a history teacher at Randolph High School

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Recently, I have been exploring new ways of integrating primary source analysis and discussion in the social studies classroom. In my Advanced Placement European History course, we constantly read, annotate, and analyze primary source documents to help the students better understand the major trends and paradigm shifts in European thought. I noticed that things began to get a bit stale in our normal classroom discussions, and I wanted to attempt a lesson that would both reinvigorate the conversation, while continuing to assess all students on their comprehension of the material. My solution came in the form of a wonderful professional development offered by the instructional coaches at Randolph High School. At a recent workshop, the coaches introduced ways to use Post-It notes of all shapes and sizes in a variety of different classroom activities. This “Post-It Pandemonium” is entirely student-centered, and provides easy ways for teachers to assess progress and comprehension while keeping students engaged in the lesson.

In order to apply these Post-It activities in my AP European History course, I designed a discussion-based lesson centered on the European philosophers Karl Marx and John Stuart Mill. For the lesson, students were attempting to evaluate the differing opinions ofScreen Shot 2015-04-14 at 12.42.54 PM the two philosophers regarding individuality and community in nineteenth-century Europe. In preparation for this lesson, students needed to read and annotate a primary source packet with documents from both philosophers, as well as a variety of different critiques to their positions. Upon arriving to the class, students were divided into groups of three, and given a large Post-It note. Half of the groups were assigned to be experts on Marx, and the other half of the students focused on Mill’s theories of Utilitarianism. Students then had time to summarize their philosopher’s position regarding individuality on the Post-It note, incorporating evidence from the text. After placing these large Post-It notes on the board, a representative from each group chose a Post-It from the opposing philosopher, and, on a separate, smaller Post-It, had to write how their philosopher would respond to the ideas written on the original note. During this time, I circulated the room, and was extremely impressed with the high level of discussion occurring within each group. The students worked diligently to assume the role of their philosopher, and to justify their beliefs with textual evidence.

After placing their philosopher’s rebuttal on the board, I decided to add one last twist to the lesson. After briefly discussing the initial analysis with all students, I gave each group a Screen Shot 2015-04-14 at 12.41.21 PMcritique of their original philosopher from a nineteenth-century intellectual (i.e. Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens, Pope Leo XIII). Students then had to read the primary source from their critic, and, on an even smaller Post-It note, write how this critic would respond to the writings of their original philosopher. When the students placed their final products on the board, they had a chain of Post-It notes analyzing their original philosopher’s beliefs, a response from either Marx or Mill, and a critique from nineteenth-century society. We ended class with a brief discussion, peppering in any material the students may have missed during their small-group discussion. Based on the exit tickets from the class, students were not only able to meet the lesson’s objectives, but they appeared to have a fun time along the way. As I circulated the room, I found myself engaged in the small-group discussions, and was able to interact with students individually. Overall, I found that incorporating Post-Its into my classroom discussion was a simple and engaging way of assessing student learning, and I would definitely plan these activities into future lessons in the social studies classroom.

Student Engagement

hands-raising-student-engagement-stakeholder-participationI’ve been thinking a lot about student engagement lately and how to get all students in a class excited to learn. A great lesson introduction, a passionate student-centered teacher, and a classroom environment that encourages risk-taking and freedom of expression are essential ingredients. What else needs to happen?

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Robert Balfanz’s Report

In a 2007 report on why students drop out of school, Robert Balfanz of Johns Hopkins categorized all dropouts into four categories. One of these categories he called “fade outs,” a group of people he believed were inclined to drop out because school was not relevant for them. Fade outs are “students who have generally been promoted on time from grade to grade and may even have above grade level skills but at some point become frustrated or bored and stop seeing the reason for coming to school,” Balfanz writes in his report. “Once they reach the legal dropout age they leave, convinced that they can find their way without a high school diploma or that a GED will serve them just as well.” This lack of relevance between a student’s life and what is learned in the classroom can plague lessons and, at its worst, incite students to drop out.

Today our humanities teachers had the morning to discuss student engagement during a two-hour professional development session. We did an activity in which all teachers in our department wrote an answer to this question: What is engagement in the classroom? I loved the responses. “Engagement is getting every student actively induced in the learning process,” wrote one teacher. “Engagement in the classroom is students caring enough about your content to want to actually learn and learn more about it,” wrote another. I put all responses to the question from teachers in a word cloud to better visualize answers. A few words jump out at me. Making, sharing, connecting, participating, connected, actively, working, curiosity, and of course, relevant. For me, relevance is key. Relevance answers the age old question of why do I need to know this? Relevance is key for Robert Balfanz as well. Balfanz writes that “high schools have to actively structure their electives and the themes of the core course to stress the relevance of what is being learned to adult success” if they are to thwart the problem of fade outs. I think one of our teachers summed up the importance of relevancy better than I ever could. “Engagement is relevancy as perceived by the student,” they wrote. For educators, ensuring content is relevant to students’ lives is paramount to making the learning environment an engaging one. Using current events in class, tying content to students’ interests, and giving real-world scenerios for students to study can help bridge the gap between what is purely theoretical and what is relevant.

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Something For Your Teaching Toolbox

Just a quick post to share a formative assessment strategy from one of the greats. This is from Carol Jago’s fantastic book With Rigor For All and is one of the more interesting ways9780325042107 I’ve come across to assess student understanding of reading. Since it’s now almost March, it’s also that time of the year when a new teaching strategy can energize you and your classroom. So, here’s a quick one for your teaching toolbox.

In With Rigor for All, Jago describes a method she has used to check for reading comprehension without resorting to a conventional multiple choice quiz. She starts class by telling students to “close their eyes and visualize the most powerful image they remember from last night’s reading” (58). Then she has students fold a piece of paper into four squares and quickly complete a four-step process to describe the scene.

  • In the first box, students draw a picture of a powerful image from what they read;
  • In the second box, students put their picture into words;
  • In the third box, students imagine they are professors of literature and write a brief lecture to a college class describing the scene they drew;
  • In the fourth box, students write a poem describing or responding to the scene they selected.

It’s clear that for students to be able to complete this task, they will have had to read the text. More importantly, questions like the four Jago used with her students will give a teacher a more complete picture of student understanding than they would have acquired from a standard quiz. A teacher will be able to see what scenes resonated with students and how they are responding to the action in the story. Teachers can then adjust instruction based on this robust student feedback. An activity like this might also get students to engage a little more closely with a text since they are the ones determining what is important in the story, not the teacher. Indeed, for Jago, this kind of assessment empowers students with choice. “Students,” Jago writes, “explored a scene from the level that they–rather than I–found powerful” (59). Choice, creativity, artistic interpretation, analysis, informational writing, poetry–all in one simple formative assessment.

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Source:

Jago, Carol. With Rigor for All: Meeting Common Core Standards for Reading Literature. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2011. Print.

Using Subtext in English Class

By Bree Valvano

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Image Credit: https://www.renaissance.com/products/subtext

As I continued to research and discover new ways to use technology, specifically the five new classroom iPads I have been given, I came across several articles that discussed an app called Subtext. This app allows you to download eBooks and create a collaborative reading area for students and teachers. The app allows users to define words, research concepts in a reading via the web, highlight lines, link to videos and other resources, mark notes, ask questions, and comment all in real time. If you know anything about me and my teaching philosophy, you know I had to learn more about this tool.

After downloading the app on my personal iPad and playing with it for a short time, I Screen Shot 2014-11-06 at 7.58.26 PMquickly saw the potential this app has for promoting collaboration and close reading of a text. Subtext allows you to create a classroom environment where students can collaborate when discussing a text. The teacher can embed information and web links for students to use while they are reading a text. The teacher can also add questions for students to answer, and/or the teacher can see the comments the students are making and add his/her own comments and answer questions. The teacher can also create specific assignments for the class that are linked to Common Core Standards. Since the Common Core focuses on close reading and using textual evidence to support arguments, this tool has great potential to assist teachers as they help students practice these skills.

As with any app, there are a few things you need to know before you get started. Students and teachers need a Gmail account to log into the app. Since most people are using Gmail and it’s free to set up an account if they are not, this doesn’t seem like too big of a deal. Also, the app itself is free, but you may need to purchase the text documents, depending on what is available. There are some free books, but not all books are free. You also need to purchase licenses so students can access the tool. The cool thing about the licenses is the fact that they can be assigned to a student for the lesson and then reclaimed, after the lesson, so you can use them again in another class. I personally think the cost is totally worth it.

I recently tried the app with my English IIH classes. They worked in groups to complete a close reading activity on Poe’s poem The Raven. Before the activity, I added questions and imagescomments to help the students analyze the use of language and literary devices to convey theme. I explained the features in Subtext, and the students got to work. While students were asking questions, I was able to add my comments and they were able to answer each other’s questions. Students were also able to use the features to look up unfamiliar words and search the web to find helpful information. At the end of the lesson, I asked students what they thought of the tool and the response was unanimous. They thought the app was both fun and helpful. They enjoyed being able to construct meaning and collaborate when completing a close reading of the text. I will definitely be using this tool again.