Saturday, April 26, 2014

Background knowledge and purpose setting - without them you could face epic fail

This topic never gets old for me.  I think it is because I've walked into dozens of classrooms over the years and have heard students ask over and over and over again, "Why are we doing this?"  When those words come out of their mouths, immediately I understand that the relevance of the activity and information has left the building, and the kids are instantly disengaged.  Posting standards and target goals in one's classroom gives a purpose, but the relevance is still not there.  Thus, continued disengagement.  Well, the last two weeks I have been working with two educators who are always willing to step out on the highest cliff with me and peer over just to see what possibilities lie over the edge, and I have to say, its been so wildly successful that we have rallied two more teachers to join us on this adventure!

Its tough to let go of things we have loved from years past.  There is currently a joke running in our department about a dramatic version of The Diary of Anne Frank and how this has been one of the toughest pieces for some teachers to "let go".  My risky colleague is no different.  Last year she and I collaborated on her long-loved biography project.  It's one of those projects that she has been teaching for years, and we needed to revamp it to cover the correct standards.  I'm a firm believer that if you really love something that much, you'll teach it with passion, so I knew that we needed to fix it up and make it work for her.  

Well, she approached me again about this same unit three weeks ago, but this year we were both ready to amp it up.  In the past she has had students choose biographies, read them, and then do some sort of project on the person.  As with so many other long-standing projects across the curriculum, it was a basic research report where kids choose a topic and become the expert on this topic, and we pray that they have found enough relevance and interest in the topic to complete it. This year we wanted to tie in some argumentative tone to the project, so we met and decided to focus on the essential topic Most Influential People.  We decided that students would be required to research a person and then provide evidence that proves that the person is, indeed, one of the most influential people in their field.  

Our first meeting consisted of pinpointing standards that we wanted to be certain to cover in-depth and then outlining our expectations.  We knew we wanted to focus on the research process, and we knew that we wanted to leave the final project open to student choice. After that planning meeting, we met off and on to start the process of front-loading important information, and we decided that we needed to get everybody on the same page in terms of defining what an influential person was.  I was also able to interest my retired former-colleague (and Project CRISS partner in crime) Pam, who loves to come back and share her wealth of knowledge with middle schoolers.  

Because the project has turned out to be one of the most interesting collaborative adventures I have ever had, I wanted to outline, in depth, what we did - partly to share what we have done and partly to remember the beauty of how it all came together.

Our first few days with the students focused on the phrase influential person.  We did a few background knowledge activating activities which ended up being as telling for us as they were for our students.

  • We had students draw a target on a piece of poster paper and fill in people they considered to be influential in their families, school, neighborhood/city, state/nation, and the world.  This was an immediate bust.  It was clear, after only a few minutes, that some of our kiddos could identify the word influential, but few could apply it and identify people they would consider influential because their definitions of the word were so wishy washy.
  • We then went back and had students discuss, in groups, their definitions of the word before they looked it up in the dictionary to clarify their misconceptions.  A whole group discussion took place, and we pointed out misconceptions over several days.  My biggest fear is always that students will go back to their former thinking because its easier and has been ingrained in them for so long.
  • Finally, we had groups discuss and identify a list of ten characteristics they thought a person of influence might have.
Students took purposeful notes
I knew I wanted to hit this idea of influential people really hard, and I also knew that if we didn't clean up all misconceptions on the word that our project would fall apart during the early stages - an epic fail I was not willing to watch, considering we actually had the time to clear things up.  We decided to work this idea for a week.  My colleague and I googled "characteristics of influential people" for kicks, and we found some pretty amazing articles on the web that outlined what these organizations believed it meant to be influential.  We chose 4 different ones (two from Forbes  and the other two from different websites that focused on self-help).  One was so long that we split it into two.  From there we performed the same twisted jigsaw that I had done with a group of kids in science earlier in the year.  
Discussions began
  • Print enough articles for every student to have one (be sure to even out the articles so that each one is read by the same number of students).  Have students choose what article they want to read and get into groups after they've chosen.
  • Give students their purpose for reading the article.  Their purpose is to decide which of the characteristics they feel are most important and to be prepared to explain why by arguing the case for the chosen characteristics.
  • Once everybody in the group finishes, the group must somehow agree on the most important characteristics.  If one person feels strongly about their second choice, he must argue his case, but he cannot choose it unless the entire group agrees.  By the end of this group work, all students in each group should have identical lists of characteristics and be prepared to provide reasons why they were chosen.  Here is where it gets fun.
  • Count each group off again.  In one group, each person gets a different number.  Then put the new groups together by number.  Now each new group should have at least one person in it that has read a different article.  In a normal jigsaw, the job of the group would be to "teach" the information to the rest of the group, but not in this one!
  • Every student in the group will, undoubtedly, have come armed with three to five characteristics of an influential person - all from different perspectives.  The group's job is to whittle down those into a list of their top ten.  What our kiddos found was that one characteristic may have shown up several times, and all they had to do is put some of them together!  Some, however, had to be debated.
  • Their final list then got submitted to us before they left for their next class.
Once we got those lists, we took the time to cut them apart and put like-characteristics together until we came up with a long class list of every trait mentioned.  The next day, we made the class discuss and vote on the final top ten.  What we found beautiful is that six of the ten characteristics chosen for the top ten were the same in both classes!  I'd call that success!

Our kiddos were finally ready to move forward to previewing topics and choosing their biographies.  Reflectively speaking, a few beautiful things happened during this entire pre-learning stage.  
Final lists derived from jigsaw activity
  • In the time that it took us to complete this entire process (about a week), only one student got "schooly" on us and asked what the final project was going to have to be.
  • Misconceptions were cleared up, and we now had an easily accessible list of ten characteristics that students could use while they played detective in their reading of their biographies that they didn't even HAVE yet.
  • Interest was piqued.  I say this with hindsight because we are several days ahead as I write this, and the behavior of the students after they received their biographies blew us away.  More details to follow on this.
  • A good discussion was had in both classes about negative influences and how they would align to the top ten characteristics. Without even doing it, students had developed a top ten list that would easily include the negative influences as well as the positive.
The next steps in this process are just as exciting, but this is a great place for me to stop for now.  What I can say is that every day I cannot wait to step into this classroom to see what is going to happen next.  Even though our plans are secure, the implementation is entertaining.  Watching our students remain engaged excites me.  But what really is interesting is that they all know they will be expected to produce something at the end, but they're so involved in what they're doing right now that none of it seems to matter.  Next weekend, I should be able to report to you the process of choosing topics and beginning the prep for research.  Stay tuned!

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