Sunday, May 4, 2014

Background knowledge and purpose setting - Part 2

This blog is a continuation from last week's blog.  It is an ongoing narrative of a large project in which I am currently involved.  To get the scoop on what has happened previously, go back and read last week's blog.

On Friday I asked my colleague’s fourth period class for a show of hands of students who were more than half way through the biography that they had chosen last week.  Over half the class raised their hands, and some expressed that they had already finished!  Stepping out on a limb, I asked for a show of hands of students who are actually sort-of enjoying the biography (Never ask a middle schooler if they enjoy something about their education.  You’re likely to get crickets.).  What amazed me is the positive response we got when posing this question.  The room was filled with hands in the air.  They were admitting to enjoying  - not just reading – but reading a biography!  And, friends, I am not working with a class full of self-motivated or gifted students!  I’m working with a very diverse group of readers ranging from below average to above average in their reading levels. 

The big question from my former colleague (and tireless volunteer in this adventure) Pam is – WHY?  Why are these kiddos reading?  Why are they enjoying it?  What have we done that would cause a twelve or thirteen year old to find a biography on Helen Keller, Einstein, or Abraham Lincoln so satisfying that they’d want to finish it?  I’ll let you decide that answer for yourself after you read about the steps that we took  last week. 

We left off last blog with a final, class-derived list of the top ten characteristics that made a person highly influential.  Each class (fourth and sixth period) voted on the top ten, and, if you remember from last week, six of those ten characteristics were the same in both classes.  We felt like this was wildly successful.  If almost sixty students could conclude that the same six traits made a highly influential individual, then all sixty of those kiddos read, comprehended, and concluded at relatively the same level! 

Here they are.  The entire collection of pics just waiting to be picked.
The next step in this project was to have students choose their project topic.  Instead of giving the students a list of individuals from which to choose, Pam suggested going to the Library of Congress and printing photographs that represented the different choices we were offering.  She had even gone to the trouble of choosing only people who matched a biography of 100 or more pages in our library collection!  The pictures we printed and put into plastic sleeves before we laid out about 200 of them in the classroom.  The choosing process we conducted just like we normally do Steven Layne  Book Shopping activity (sadly, I can't find a good link for this activity).  With music playing softly in the background, we allowed students about twenty minutes to circulate the room and study the pictures.  Students carried sticky notes with their names on them so that they could mark their final choice when we gave the okay to do so.  Their instruction was to choose a picture that spoke to them.  What we didn't tell them was that the picture would be their choice for the biography project, and the next day we took a trip across the hall to the library where the students each checked out at least one biography that matched their picture from our collection.  Some students were intrigued by their choices, many knew at least the field form which their biography would likely come, and only a small number of students were outwardly upset by their choices.  We dealt with these students individually.
We couldn't get them out of their books!

What happened next was nothing short of miraculous for a group of seventh graders.  Our idea was to come back to the classroom the next day and have the students put themselves into groups according to field (artists, inventors, scientists, etc), which we did.  But we wanted the students to talk amongst their groups and share what spoke to them about the picture, why they chose it, and if they were surprised with the choice.  The picture to the left is what happened instead.  I walked into the classroom in the middle of the period to join the activity, and I was bowled over by what I saw!  These kids were READING.  Now, for those of you who know anything about most middle schoolers, its tough enough to get an entire class to sit still for independent reading when you ask them to, but to give them a social activity and have them choose to read (a biography) instead???  We couldn't believe it, and we finally gave up and let them read.

Working on the flip book
The following day we insisted on moving forward because we wanted our kiddos to read with a purpose before they got too far into their books, so we had the groups create flip books.  On each page of the book, they wrote one of the class-chosen characteristics of an influential person (ie. confident, good public speaker, etc.).  Then they had to go back and think about how that trait applied to their field.  We gave this question frame as an option if the group was struggling: What would it look like if a person in the field of _______________ was _____________?  So some students asked themselves something like What would it look like if an inventor was self-motivated?  They really struggled with this, and we found that, even though they could identify these characteristics as being important for a person of influence, they had a difficult time describing what the trait would actually look like.  This will be an ongoing vocabulary lesson with them as we move through the different stages of research, but there was no way we were going to be able to address all groups with all ten characteristics in one period.  The decision was made that we would clear up misconceptions on a small-group basis rather than with the whole group because each group had different needs.  The final product for this day was the flip book that we kept in a binder for future reference when it came to remembering the purpose for reading.

Pam's big job was to present the Question Formulation Technique (QFT) to the students.  We spent a day with the kids having them, as a group, write down all of their questions about their topic on a piece of poster paper.  Before they began, we reflected back on the essential question:  What makes (their topic) an influential person in (the field)? There were only four rules to the questioning activity:

  1. Ask as many questions as you can.
  2. Do not stop to discuss whether a question is good or bad.  Just write down every question.
  3. Write down questions exactly as they are stated.
  4. Change any statement into a question.

Once students spent time doing this, we then showed our kiddos how to change questions from In the Book questions (a Project CRISS QAR term) to Author and Me questions.  The idea was to show students that purpose changes when you change the questions.  We wanted students to think about questions before they really dove into their reading.  And that was that.  We let them read for two days.

Sticky notes by an average student
We really couldn't get the kiddos into their books fast enough.  Some of them had already gotten through half of their books because they'd been reading outside of school, and we wanted to arm them with some hard-core purposes before they got any further.  With sticky notes in hand, they attacked their books - looking for examples of the ten characteristics of influential people and answers to some of their preliminary questions.  At this point in the game, we didn't even really want them stopping to jot down notes other than on the sticky notes, and I have to say, it was an effective decision!  Some of them went sticky-note mad, marking spots on every page where they identified examples of how their person demonstrated confidence or public speaking, or the art of persuasion.

As you can see, the heavily-hit background information and purpose setting has made all the difference in the world to these kiddos.  And we still haven't told them what their final product will be!  Because the final product is not our real purpose, we didn't feel like we needed to focus too much on it, and honestly, we are having entirely too much fun to focus on ruining it with a final product.  We do have projects and rubrics ready to go, and the plan is to introduce them this week, but the kiddos are much more interested in the process than the product.  When more than half of them raised their hands when I asked who was enjoying their biographies - I knew we had them hooked.

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