Saturday, November 16, 2013

November 15 Crumble - Active Engagement and Column-Notes

I spent some time this week collaborating with a colleague from another building.  The focus of our meeting was to discuss ways to support some of our content area teachers in providing students with organized information, yet keeping these same students actively and collaboratively engaged.  Tough order, but absolutely possible.

As we talked, the question arose about teaching students organization strategies for note-taking.  Too often in education we follow a trend to a fault, let the pendulum swing so quickly to one side, and neglect to see that we have abandoned things that are working.  Buzz words such as collaboration and active engagement have risen so high above anything else that many of us are starting to abandon key life-skills such as organization and summarization - skills that would be taught during more structured lecture-style lessons where students were expected to take notes. 

Don't get me wrong, friends.  I am absolutely not justifying making students sit for fifty-minute periods while they listen to an instructor drone on and on about a topic, ferociously jotting down copious notes.  What I am suggesting is that there are some beneficial skills that still need to be taught that may or may not be taught during a more engaging activity or collaboration.

In previous blogs I've discussed the power of note-taking, choosing what organization strategy works best for you, and organizing that information according to your strengths.  Some teachers are having a difficult time finding a happy medium between teacher-centered instruction and student-centered instruction, and that's where many of us are struggling.  We want our kiddos to be able to pull out important information from the text, but we don't trust them enough to be able to handle this task alone, so we spend time in the classroom asking them to copy down what we think is important. 

After my discussion last Tuesday, I was reminded of some ways that we can use an oldie-but-goodie and revamp it to be used in the classroom as a partner tool -- all the while allowing the teacher to still have some control over what students might be recording in their notes.

Project CRISS calls this strategy Two-Column Notes.  You might know it as Cornell Notes.  I'm going to take these notes a step further and move to three columns.  Below is what it could look like:

Main Topic
This is where the teacher might start students by giving them a purpose for reading and discussing.  Teachers can do either one of two things here:
  • Provide students with main topics or broad questions
  • Allow students to use text features to come up with their own main topics or broad questions.
Whatever happens in this column, know that this is the purpose-setter, so if you want your students to explore specific topics, this is the place to do it!
Partner Discussion
In this column, students work with a partner or partners (no more than three to a group!) to decide together what goes here.  You may want to be specific about what you think should go here. For example, you might ask students to look in the text to find evidence that climate change is, indeed, happening on Earth.  This purpose should be stated in column one. 
All group members need to agree on everything put into this column. 
This is a great time to listen in on discussions and gage what will need to be addressed during the final large-group discussion. 
Cris Tovani suggests during times of engagement to stop the class, state observations, redirect if the entire class seems perplexed by something significant, and send them off again.
Another idea here is to find one piece of information in each group that you ask the group to share with the class.  This validates their group work.  
Additional Information
During the discussion, the teacher should have collected information about where students have missed chunks of important information.  As a wrap-up activity, point these things out and have students note them in this column.  If you choose to go over all information, students can even go back to column two and highlight information that was emphasized during this phase.
Students will not see value in the second column, however, if they end up copying down everything that you present, so be certain to have each group share something you felt was important and have students check their second column for that information. 
I wouldn't even put up a three column note taking guide on a projector at this point here.  I would use a two column note or make a simple list.  This will get students out of the habit of copying down exactly what they see and get them into the habit of checking their previous work before adding to it.  This column is for additional information, not restating work they've already done.

I had another conversation this week with a valued colleague on her frustrations with her struggling readers - why do they struggle with things other than reading (like group work)?  You'd think that if you give a struggler the opportunity to work with a partner or small group that he would be more motivated by the social aspect of the activity, but the group-work that this teacher had planned dissolved before her eyes as these students completely resisted (kind of as a whole) and did not complete the activity effectively.  The teacher then expressed that she never revisited the idea of group-work again.  Don't fear - this is so common, so know you're not alone!

If you have a kiddo sitting in your class that is still struggling with reading at age eleven, twelve, or thirteen, know that your class is not the first class she has struggled in, and that the struggle with reading is no longer the issue.  She is now a struggling learner, not because she can't learn, but because she has faced failure enough times to understand that things are more likely to go down the tubes than to turn out positively.  Because of this, she resists any school work.  Your job is to create small successes.  My suggestion to this teacher was to break up that group work into smaller chunks, give specific guidelines, and redirect frequently (like every ten minutes or so).  And don't give up.  Giving up is one of the worst things a teacher can do when teaching students to work effectively in groups.  This is one of the reasons why so many of our struggling readers have no collaboration skills - once you face failure as a teacher (you see that group work is not working), you do not want to revisit that type of activity again.  Hmmmmm . . . ironic, isn't it?

If you've ever visited a Montessori classroom, you've seen that even five, six, and seven-year-old students can work collaboratively and effectively.  These students are taught from the beginning specific skills, and their teachers train and retrain them until they get it right.  This is what could be happening with our kiddos as well.  It's never too late to train them.

To bring this to a close - remember a few things:
  1. Collaboration doesn't have to include building a house or  starting a business; it could be as simple as agreeing upon significant pieces of information in a text selection.
  2. Validate group work by not making your kiddos re-do work they've already done.
  3. Organizing information is important.
  4. Group work comes after training and consistency.
  5. Even struggling learners can do it.
  6. Reflecting on what works and what doesn't is very important.  Let your students reflect also!
And most importantly, don't give up!

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