As a member of this Online Book Club, you are expected to post to the book blog at least once per week between now and July 11 -- that's six weeks. You should finish your book before then, and you will meet during the Institute in your groups to extend the discussion and plan how to present the book to the others in the Institute.

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Saturday, July 9, 2016

It Doesn't Have to be Perfect to be Effective

I appreciated the postscript to this text a lot. In my previous posts I whined a bit about the "pie in the sky"approach to implementing changes of this nature in a school, particularly if the school is large. While I know change can start in one classroom and spread from my own experience, I run into issues of how to make it a widespread adoption of a better way to teach and learn. The postscript emphasized the need to "think globally, act locally"when it comes to educational reform.

One of the most important tips Lattimer gives is to explore literacy practices in one's discipline. I believe I spoke in an earlier post about the importance of educators in other disciplines beyond English in understanding how to read and write in their discipline. I strongly believe that direct instruction when it comes to writing in a specific discipline should be a part of teacher training if it isn't already.

Most importantly, she emphasizes to start small and not get caught up on making the process perfect. We all know from our own experience that even the most thought out lesson plan doesn't go exactly as planned. We're going to make mistakes. Things are bound to fail miserably when launching something new, but we shouldn't give up. We need to reflect on our own practice -- meaningfully -- and implement changes and start all over again.

Pondering Group Work

Image from: http://www.thequotepedia.com/quotes/effort/page/10/
Throughout this book, I’ve also noticed how much the case studies and examples detailed by Lattimer (2014) emphasize group work and collaboration among students. I love using groups in my classes, but so far, I do so with what I would call moderate success. I’ve heard different things about how to structure groups – whether I should assign them, give students a say in who is in their group (or who is NOT in their group), if I should assign specific roles, have students pick roles, or even give roles at all, etc. In the Lattimer (2014) book, I noticed a couple different ideas that seem important for group work:

·      “To support success in students’ effective speaking and listening in the classroom, teachers must intentionally teach the norms and skills of what Lauren Resnick refers to as ‘accountable talk’ (1999)” (p. 92);

·      An exemplar teacher does well by “ensuring that all groups have regular opportunities to share with the whole class and requiring rotating leadership responsibilities within the group so that every student has a chance to be heard” (p. 94); and

·      The math teacher realized that her students’ “collaborative problem-solving process had stalled and their growth stagnated: ‘They got into a kind of pattern where they would fall into different roles within the group,’ she observed. ‘Someone would take on the role of note-taker, someone else would take charge of the calculations, and someone else would focus on actually solving the problem. This usually worked to find a solution to the immediate problem, but it kind of defeated the point of working together. They weren’t really learning from one another and deepening their conceptual understanding’” (p. 126).

In these three quotations, I noted several key take-aways related to group work in an effective classroom:

1.     Students must be clearly taught how to cooperate and communicate effectively in groups. Although, I’m not entirely sure how to do this yet, it does make sense and lines up with some of my other ideas and blog posts. And this is definitely a key component of effective literacy skills and particularly when using language and communication strategies that are disciplinary-specific.

2.     Rotating roles or responsibilities in groups and amongst the class may help. This rotating of roles could help within the group to ensure that everyone works on every skill at some point in the year, and it also may force some students out of their comfort zone. In addition, it helps, as Lattimer (2014) notes to make sure that every student is heard. I’m wondering how often these roles are rotated, how you ensure that students actually switch roles and don’t just have the dominant person or “natural leader” be the consistent leader in the group even if she is technically also taking notes – or whatever her assigned role may be.

3.     Keeping set roles or not really focusing on well-designed group work can make it pointless. There are definitely some times where I do group work when it may not be the most effective tool, so I need to make sure that I evaluate when and why I’m using group work. Plus, although I sometimes assign or give a list of specific roles for each member of the group (usually to hold all students accountable for some portion of the work), I may need to rethink those positions or make sure to change up groups and change up positions more often and more conscientiously.

With all of that in mind, does anyone have excellent group work strategies from their own classes? How do you decide when to use groups? If and how to assign groups and roles within groups? How and when to rotate groups, roles, leadership? Looking forward to talking about this more and figuring out how to best structure my group work so that it supports the development of disciplinary thinking and literacies.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Brainstorming Authentic Audiences & Projects

Image from: http://www.relatably.com/q/brainstorm-quotes
I’ve been trying to think of ways to create more real, authentic tasks and audiences for my courses for next year since that has been a key take-away from the Lattimer (2014) text and some work I’m doing for another (online) summer course this year. In this post, I’m going to throw out a few ideas I have for one of my classes, and hope that I can make them happen and/or get feedback and build connections to make them even better.

The main thing I’m struggling with is that I know that I want and need to have students write some full essays because they need practice writing and need support and feedback in how to write formally, but I still want them to think there’s more of an audience than just me. Is this where I bring in peer feedback circles? Or something else? Do all of my assessments have to be “authentic” and have “real” audiences? How can I do that while also still having students practice writing essays or backing up claims? 

For 8th grade, I’m lucky enough to have iPads and was at a conference for similar schools with our grant this summer. I connected with some other American history teachers, and we’re hoping to connect our classes this fall to have students interview each other, share work with each other, and generally work as sort of long-distance partners or pen pals. I hope this will pan out and help to make their audience broader than just me, but if not, I’ll need other ways to build these connections or make it more real.

Please let me know what you think, what questions you have, how I can improve these, and whatever else you’re thinking!

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Teaching of "Training the Mind to Think"

Photo from: http://quotlr.com/image/2968
Throughout the chapter about assessment and critique, I found myself thinking often about how I need to do a better job at teaching and modeling these skills like self-regulation, organization, communication, and others. These skills are incredibly important to help towards "training the mind to think," but I rarely remember being taught how to do them in my own education. I can vividly remember being taught (or told) how to organize my binder or where to write my name for each specific class in middle school, but there were never really options and it wasn’t explained why we needed to do these things – other than the fact that our teacher wanted us to do them in that way. So, I want and need to do more to make these skills clear, obvious, and learnable for my own students, but I’m not entirely sure how to teach them.

However, I’m lucky enough to be in a situation where my colleagues are also trying to figure out the same thing. I teach in International Baccalaureate (IB) schools, and the Middle Years Program (MYP) of the IB emphasizes a number of these skills in something called “approaches to learning” (ATLs), and in the last six months and continuing into next year, my school has been collectively focusing on how we can better teach and incorporate these skills into our existing lessons. The ATLs include the following skill categories and clusters:

My department (social studies) has sort of decided to focus primarily on teaching the research skills of information and media literacy as well as the critical thinking skill set because those are things we expect students to do anyway. They have to evaluate sources, be able to conduct their own research and find trustworthy information, etc. Plus, they then need to think critically through all of that information they’ve found to develop a clear and logical argument based on their evidence. I think we’ll also end up talking about communication, collaboration, organization, and reflection a fair amount as well because those are also areas that we have students do throughout our classes.

I’m still struggling, however, to figure out exactly how to teach these skills. There are a few ideas Lattimer (2014) had that are helpful, but I still need more guidance and help figuring out how to really teach these things, so if anyone has ideas or examples, let me know! But, the things I found helpful from Lattimer (2014) are:
  1. It is incredibly important to give students clear expectations and models, opportunities for self-assessment, and clear feedback and instruction focused on growth. Lattimer (2014) outlines these ideas from McManus (2008) by saying that “students must be able to answer three questions: (1) Where am I going? (2) Where am I now? (3) How can I close the gap?” (p. 112). The expectations and models help answer question 1, giving self-assessment opportunities leads to an answer to question 2, and question 3 is solved when given that clear, meaningful feedback and instruction on what to change, why, and how.
  2. Students need help and guidance in self-assessment, which can be accomplished through a combination of individual self-reflection and goal setting focused on these “soft skills” rather than on achieving a particular grade or mastering a content area. And then these self-reflections should be followed up with some guidance from the teacher, often in the form of a quarterly conference with the teacher to check in and set new goals for the next quarter. Lattimer (2014) outlines this process in an example from a specific teacher (p. 127-128), and it is clear that the conference portion is student-led, but that the teacher has also spent time thinking about the student’s goals and growth with some observations and other feedback.
I hope that next year I will be able to incorporate these things – giving some clear expectations and models and having students self-assess and do quarterly meetings with me to think about growth and goals. However, as I mentioned before, I’m still struggling with the actual process of figuring out how to teach these skills of organization, critical thinking, self-assessment, etc. I hope our conversations next week can help me think through this part of it in more detail, so that I can work towards the Einstein quotation that, "Education is not the learning of facts, but the training of the mind to think."

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Building Communication Skills

(Another apology for being slow to blog. I've been away from a computer for a while and didn't feel like attempting to type up a whole blog post on my phone. But, I did lots of reading and finished the book, so now be prepared for a series of blog posts with ideas, connections, reflections, and more in the coming days as we get ready for the Summer Institute!)
Photo from: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/157485318196873775/
After finishing the Lattimer (2014) book, I feel like there are some definite similarities across all the chapters. She splits it up into different sections about reading, writing, speaking and listening, and assessment and critique, but they're all really just connected and fit under one larger umbrella of building effective communication skills - at least they do in my mind. Throughout the book, she emphasizes the importance of having real, authentic purposes to each of these literacy skill sets, and although I love the term literacies, I think that the real purpose of having literacies is to be able to communicate.

Specifically, I see some major connections between reading and listening and then between writing and speaking. The reading and listening is sort of consuming information while writing and speaking is more about producing and sharing it. For the consumption of information (reading and listening) and how to teach it and make it meaningful, we need to be sure to have a clear purpose or goal in doing the consuming - like the "Setting a purpose for reading" poster in a classroom mentioned in the book (Lattimer, 2014, p. 37). It must be clear and obvious why someone is part of this audience. It's way too easy to tune out when reading or listening if you're not invested, so having a purpose is essential. Furthermore, I think people who are consuming information need to be ready and willing to ask questions and learn more. If your purpose is clear but not met by the information you are given, then you have to continue in search of that purpose. Finding new information from other resources or by asking questions of the person who is speaking.

Furthermore, in terms of producing and sharing information (the writing and speaking part), we need to be sure to clearly target a specific audience (in language, approach, topics/information covered, etc.), provide some sort of organization to help the audience follow along, and be sure to focus on a clear point of idea to the forefront of our product. And throughout all of this - for both producing and consuming - it is essential to practice the skills A LOT (and for a variety of audiences and purposes) and to give and provide feedback and do lots of revision. These ideas all came through clearly throughout the book, and are important reminders for me as I think through revising my own units and lessons for next year.

Finally, all of these skills are important for a variety of reasons. Many of those ideas were outlined in Lattimer's (2014) first chapter and my first blog post, but it also reminded me of a quotation from Lawrence Clark Powell who said, "Write to be understood, speak to be heard, read to grow." Those are all real purposes and goals for communication, and they are what I hope my students will learn to do and prioritize in their own lifelong learning.

Feedback, Critique, and Self-Assessment

Lattimer addresses the importance of feedback, critique, and self-assessment in chapter five and this chapter resonated the most with me out of the entire text. I practice a lot of what she recommends and I vouch for her conclusions that these three things are very important in a classroom. One thing I always had trouble with was the push back I often received after returning graded essays. Students would approach me wanting another point here or there, despite being very clear in my comments as to the problems with the essay. At some point I decided I had to do something about it, so I implemented a self-assessment of their essays, which they complete after I graded them, but before I return their graded essay to them. They mark up their essay, write comments about areas they thought they did well on and on others they thought needed more work. At the end they write a brief paragraph, which is a synopsis of their take away from assessing their essay. Then then score their essay using the rubric for the assignment. I found that students are far more critical of their own work than I am of theirs. Most of the time they are pleasantly surprised that they did better than they anticipated based on their self assessment, and this process alleviated the nit-picking for points.

I like how Lattimer suggests using self-assessment on more than just writing. I see applications for it in terms of discussion participation and maybe even effort in the class. While I have a student-centered, discussion-based classroom, I need to do a better job of conferencing with students quarterly about their progress in class discussions. It's an area of weakness for me and I think having individual conferences will improve the level of discussion.

Another aspect of this chapter I believe in is the value of critique and the process of critiquing in the classroom. We do need to take time to TEACH critiquing and not give up on the students when a critique session doesn't go as expected. It takes time to learn how to be constructive and helpful when giving feedback to one's peers. I also like how she suggests students respond to the feedback/critique with an action plan of how he/she intends to implement the feedback into the revisions. Good ideas in this chapter that will help improve my classroom for sure!

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The Value of Discussion and Discourse in the Literature Classroom

Chapter 4, Authentic Listening and Speaking, resonates with me a great deal. I've been a proponent of Harkness discussions since 2010 and I wouldn't run my classroom any other way. Sonia's experience on pages 99-105 are a testament to this process. I can share the same experience as Sonia. Repeatedly students give me feedback once they're in college that they felt completely prepared for classroom discussion as a result of the format of my class. The discussions build confidence in their own opinions, teach them how to back up their opinion with textual evidence, foster good listening and speaking skills, and so much more.

Sonia offers good advice on how to start training students on seminar-type discussion formats. She offers excellent advice particularly for incoming freshmen who are likely not accustomed to discussion format. I particularly like her "Sentence Starters." It's also important to have students prep for discussions, so she offers the Socratic Seminar Prep Guide. I do something similar, but I have students keep notes in what I call a "daybook," which is essentially a dialectical journal to capture quotations and thoughts on the reading.

I encourage anyone who hasn't tried Socratic or Harkness discussions in his or her classroom to give it a shot. It takes a lot of modeling and patience to get the engine running, so to speak, but it's well worth it in the end.