Saturday, September 27, 2014

Reciprocal teaching for continued independence across content areas

I’ve kind of avoided this topic over the last few years, and I’m not sure why – maybe because initially it seems like a labor intensive strategy to teach.  It really isn’t, though.  It’s meaty, hearty, sound teaching, and once your students get the process, your job gets a little less exhausting.  I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – Work smarter, not harder.  We already work hard enough.

One of my all-time favorite books for tackling content-area learning (reading or not) is Guiding Readers Through Text: Strategy Guides for New Times (Wood, et. al, 2008).  The books is organized beautifully by chapters on different learning guides, and one of them is the reciprocal teaching guide, which tends to make the entire process easier.  I’m a firm believer in the idea that we never want to make our students dependent on an organizer or a guide, but to start them off on it, give them the guide and then eventually have them begin creating their own.  Unfortunately, Wood, et. al seems to be the only author group that has created the organizer that I love, and it is copyright protected in their book, so I can't copy it and throw it up on this blog for you.  But I have taken the time to create one similar so that you can get a visual of what one might look like as you read through its use below.

The reciprocal teaching guide begins with a little background information on the media you want students to tackle, and then spots for the following items: predictions about the media based upon whatever you gave them as a background knowledge activator or a preview of the text, confirmations of those predictions, and evidence from the passage that support those confirmations, a place to write down questions about what the student is learning, and the answers as the group discusses the questions.  Finally, on the bottom of the page there is a place to write two or three ideas that the student thinks are the most important and wants to share with the group.  The group will then decide together which piece of information is most important.

Here’s how I would use it in the classroom:
  • Put students into groups of 2-3.
  • Give them the Reciprocal Teaching Guide.
  • Do a background knowledge activating or building activity.  If you are using text, have students do a quick preview of the text and point out features that will help them with the process (subtitles, graphics, vocabulary, etc.).
  • Model the steps as the students go through the guide the first time.
  • Students in the group should discuss and decide upon predictions.  Guide them in making their predictions the first time through.  Use features of the media to help predict.  This will also help you to choose media that will allow them TO predict.  Without the ability to predict learning, students can't begin to build purpose independently.  
  • Instruct students to make their way through the media in small chunks (paragraph by paragraph or another way if not using physical text), stopping after each to discuss whether there was evidence to support any of their predictions and writing down any questions they had about the section.
  • As students write down their questions, encourage them to discuss the answers and write down what they discussed, showing they had managed to clarify the information.  
  • After the reading is over, have students individually write down three of the most important ideas in the passage.
  • Groups should share their ideas and decide on one idea that they thought was the most important.  They should write that one down at the bottom of their notes.

So after all this, can you see why using an organizer at the beginning might come in handy!  This strategy is so versatile, though.  I mean, it can be used with media in any subject, be it a text book or an article – even a piece of music could lend itself to using a reciprocal teaching guide!  You could use it with a video or an entire lesson, but keep in mind that you want your students to do the working so that you can monitor and observe what is happening with their learning. 

The harder you work up front of the classroom, the further from your students you become.  You cannot observe and monitor while you’re doing a song and dance up front, so try to put your kiddos at the front of their learning and see what they can come up with.  You may find that you don’t have to get up there at all and that you can teach them from the back of the room instead.

Can you think of ways you can use this strategy in your own content area?  Share that with us in the comments below.

Friday, September 19, 2014

A plea for your visual learners

This week I accidentally discovered something about digital text books and visual learners.  I love it when this happens because it reminds me that there is still so very much to learn about the way we teach and the way our students learn.  Two things happened on the very same day that created new understanding for me.

I had a teacher contact me asking if we could meet.  She was using a new text book (online), and more students were struggling with the text book than not.  We set up a meeting during lunch the very next day.

The period before we met, my eighth graders were working on a vocabulary matching activity (for my kinesthetics and aurals), and I overheard one of them saying, "That can't be the definition!  It was longer than that."  Now some teachers would call that lazy.  What? Measure the definition, but heaven forbid you read it!  I would call that visual.  But it never dawned on me that some students (especially those who are reluctant to take reading risks) might rely on their visual perception to compensate for their reading challenges.

After the eighth graders left, I warmed up my lunch and headed down to the sixth grade pods to meet with my colleague.  She was using a brand-new online version of a text book, and she reported that many of her students were having difficulty with the text book.  As soon as she opened the online text book, my eyes popped out of my head as I (me, the read/write linguistic person) tried to make sense of the portion of the page I was seeing!  Talk about inconsiderate text!  I was blown away by the difficulty, and we discussed possibly doing a lexile test to see what the level of it actually was.

As our discussion progressed we talked about different ways to help the kids break down the text to help them to make sense of it, but before we had gotten very far, the bell rang.  As I walked out the door, she handed me a hard copy of the text to look through, and we made plans to continue our discussion the next day.

Later on that day, I had a chance to sit down and look at the hard copy of the text book.  I opened the cover to the same chapter we were discussing, and I was shocked to discover how considerate the book actually was!  The page was laid out so nicely with a few pictures, nice headings, nicely organized and clearly marked sections.  And each section was only two pages long!  I couldn't believe the difference in the way I felt looking at the hard copy versus looking at the online version - and I'm not a visual learner!

After I went home that night, I started processing the two separate incidents, and my mind began to put together some very interesting questions that I would LOVE to research more.

As an experienced reader, I (even though I am not really visual) need to see where my reading begins and ends.  I need to see how it is organized so that I know what questions I can answer in my head and make predictions about what I will be reading.  The digital format of the text didn't allow me do this easily.   When we logged in and clicked on the section of text, it was just there.  I wasn't motivated to turn a page to see when the reading ended or eyeball the page to see how many sections were in it and how they were organized because all I saw was probably half the page, if that!

How can we teach our students how to read non-fiction text if they can't eyeball the page?  It seems to me that our publishers are trying to accommodate us with a "digital format" but to just put a paper-copy into a digital format isn't working for our kiddos!  They can't use their strategies to read it, which means we have to take extra steps to show them how.  Here are some ideas when making an attempt to tackle digital text books:

  1. Know what your purpose for reading is.  If the entire selection doesn't have to be read to meet the goal, please don't make your risk-avoiding students do any more risk-taking than they already are.  
  2. Offer hard copies for kiddos who are not reading risk-takers or to those who prefer it.  Chances are, they need to see the entire page visually and need to have a page to turn - and all for different reasons, but many for our visual and kinesthetic learners.  You may have to insist that some kids use the hard copy and explain that you are interested in seeing if it makes a difference in their learning.  
  3. If you absolutely have to use the digital text, start teaching them how to zoom in and zoom out.  REQUIRE students to zoom out to take a look at the entire selection required for reading and consciously analyze it for structure.  Use a strategy/organizer like the THIEVES organizer that forces students to preview the entire selection before reading.
  4. Teach students how to maneuver the online text.  There are features on the computer that cannot obviously be used in a hard copy of the text.  If you're going to make them read the online version - teach them how to pin sticky notes to it, highlight text, and click on video links, and then REQUIRE them to use those features until they become automatic.  
  5. Don't ask them to answer questions that can be found directly in the text.  There may likely be a search function.  Once your students discover this, all bets are off - nobody will be reading that text.  
  6. Create purpose for reading by looking at the beginning of each section for goals, objectives, or purposes.  Then teach kids how to organize notes.
  7. Do these things over and over and over again.
Please don't misunderstand this blog post to be anti-digital-text - there certainly is a time and place for digital text.  But understand your goal, where your students are, and what you really need to do to get them from where they are to where you need them to be.  And don't be afraid to seek out colleagues for additional suggestions!  Chances are, more of us are struggling than you realize!

Feel free to add suggestions below for additional ideas on how to tackle digital text.  Happy reading!

Friday, September 12, 2014

A-B-C. Easy as 1-2-3.

Sometimes you just need something easy to engage your learners in conversation and get them thinking right away.  The A-B-C brainstorm is such an easy and versatile strategy, and yet it gets little credit for being amazing.  Not only does this strategy engage your aural and social learners in conversation, but it also engages those who are linguistic and read/write learners due to the alphabetizing and writing.  It can be used as a background knowledge retrieving activity , an informal formative assessment, or a note taking strategy.  Here's how simple it is:

  • Give students a copy of the organizer
    click the link for the source
    at the beginning of class or as they walk in (good for visual learners, as there are boxes for drawing pictures and  organized visually). 
  • Direct them to work with a partner or group of three on filling in the organizer with words and/or pictures that directly relate to the topic and begin with the letter in the box (or have that letter in the word - your choice).
  • Students can use their resources or not - it's completely up to you.  
  • Walk around, monitor, and ask questions to engage students in deeper conversations, pointing out other words that can be written in the boxes.  
You can time the activity or not.  I could even see it used as a homework assignment so that your students review learned material from that day.  Making students go into a text book to skim and look for relevant words that are directly related to the topic might make a good preview activity for a selection of text.  For our kinesthetics, make them do it on big paper.  Tape it to a wall if you want to get crazy!  

Keep in mind that a quick reflection should always be used after any strategy.  Start out by saying something like this, "Okay, so what did we do to start out learning today?"  [Students answer with A-B-C Brainstorm]  "How did using this help you to review/learn/dig out background knowledge?" At this, your students should be able to tell you that they talked about it, reviewed the text, wrote about it, etc.  Finally, ask them what part worked best for them and how it relates to them as learners.  Making your kiddos talk about their specific learning preferences is beneficial here because they will begin to relate these preferences with their individual learning, ultimately creating more metacognitive and independent learners.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Using a three-minute-pause to break things up

I rarely walk into a classroom anymore where a teacher starts a video at the beginning and lets it just run all period.  Those days are long gone, thanks to United Streaming and YouTube where we can pull a seven minute clip rather than a forty-five minute documentary.  Last year I blogged about studying for tests, and I mentioned that I usually consider a minute per grade level the maximum a student can do the same thing before zoning out.  So for the average eighth grader, we're looking at about eight minutes of note taking, video gazing, worksheet doing, or even group discussion before they get sidetracked and lose focus.

Enter: the three minute pause.

I love this strategy because it is a quick and easy way for a student to regain focus and for the teacher to gauge what is happening inside the student's head.  Here's how it works.

  • Decide ahead of time if you want students to discuss while pausing or work independently.  I tend to lean toward discussion if the lesson has been a sit-and-get with note taking or independent if the students have been actively involved in discussion or activity.  
  • Also decide ahead of time how you want your students to be held accountable for the pause.  Should they write out their answers on a page?  On a large piece of poster paper?  Sticky notes?  Record it?  
  • After eight minutes of a video or note-taking, find a logical stopping point and pause.
  • Ask students to summarize key points so far, make connections and react to what they've learned, and ask questions or predict what they will learn next.
  • Resume the activity.
  • At the end of the activity, take a few minutes to have a group discussion about how the Three-Minute-Pause worked for them as learners, and get a feel for who seemed to benefit more than others.
And that, my friends, is it.  So go ahead.  Use it, and use it often.  Watch that forty-five minute video.  Make those kiddos take notes for the period.  But pause, pause, pause.  Don't forget who you have sitting in front you, and understand that they're all going to need to get refocused - even if you are shoveling the information in by means of the correct learning style.