Monday, May 11, 2009

Differentiated Instruction, Session 2

One of the key elements of TPA task 2-4 (and a key element of effective teaching) relates to how you differentiate, accommodate, and/or modify you teaching to make sure that you systematically meet the special needs students and still make sure that they achieve the expected outcomes of the course. How do you make sure that special needs students meet your UbD outcomes and are successful on their assessments despite their disabilities? What do you need to improve?

I think that my biggest strength in terms of teaching different kinds of learners -- be they labeled "special education" or not -- is that I'm not emotionally tied down to one type of teaching or one way of presenting material. I'll try lots of different kinds of instructional approaches in my class; in the last two weeks I've used:
  • Full-out, hands-on, exploratory learning labs
  • Demonstrations with student volunteers in front of the class
  • Direct instruction with whiteboard and/or PowerPoint
  • Individual reflection/analysis sheets
  • Group problem-solving
  • Small group presentations in front of the class
  • Free writes
  • Pair-shares
  • Mind-mapping, and
  • A field trip to an amusement park with worksheets for the students to examine and reflect on the different rides.
I try to engage students on multiple levels, with different kinds of learning methods and with opportunities for metacognition, in the hope that at least some of the methods I use will be effective in transmitting understanding to every student.

I also try to make time for extra support for students who need extra help. I've had some success here -- some students who clearly have difficulty with whole-classroom instruction do much better when I give them more focused, one-on-one attention. The downside, of course, is that it takes away from time for the rest of the class, unless the student is willing to meet with me during extended day (which they sometimes are).

My biggest weakness at this point is that I tend to be too quick to classify things as "successes" or "failures". (That's the J in my INFJ personality coming out, I think.) This is something that Victoria pointed out to me, and I can't argue with her assessment. If I think that something "doesn't work", my first instinct is to jettison it and try something else, instead of seeing success/failure as a gradient with many possible degrees of success. This can lead me to abandon a tactic when I should be thinking about how I can refine it and make it work better with my students (or even with one particular student). Likewise, if something works one time, I may keep doing it uncritically instead of adapting/modifying it to meet new circumstances -- which can lead to confusion and dismay if it suddenly "stops working" as a result.

I also, in all honesty, often feel like I'm flailing blindly in the dark with my engagement strategies. Human beings are staggeringly complex creatures, and my socialization (or lack thereof) during my school years didn't prepare me for what I would encounter in teaching at a public high school. I don't really have a good idea of why things work, or don't -- at least not enough of an idea to be able to predict what will be successful next time. I'm mostly going by my own intuition about what would be good and effective ways to learn things, and that's limited both by my own experience and by my peculiar way of processing the world around me. (One of the disadvantages of being a personality type that makes up less than 1% of the population, I suppose...)

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Culturally Responsive Teaching

One area where I've been doing a lot of thinking lately is the issue of equity, both in society and in the classroom. I've recently come to the realization that, while I believe in working for a just, egalitarian society, my subconscious cultural programming has often acted in ways that are contrary to those beliefs.

In her book, "Other People's Children", educator Lisa Delpit points out that many instructors who try to engage students in high-level, process-oriented learning experiences often just end up giving students the opportunity to demonstrate the skills they already had. The skills that are needed aren't actually taught, in many cases: they're assumed to be present, and so the material is presented too quickly and with inadequate scaffolding for students who haven't received this a priori training. Often, that training is part of the majority white middle-class culture, but is not present in the cultures of minority or lower-income students. Students are judged according to a set of rules of which they haven't been made aware, which leads to them feeling cheated and alienates them from the experience of education.

Delpit writes extensively about the existence of a "culture of power" and the need for minority and lower-income students to be taught the skills and conventions of that culture, so that they will then be able to succeed in participating in the exercise of power (and hopefully, eventually, in its more equitable distribution). Unfortunately, white liberal educators who are trying to promote a "progressive" education often fail to convey exactly the key underlying skills necessary for these students to be successful. With the very best intentions, they end up recreating the social inequities of the past.

Reading this article was an eye-opening experience for me. When I started teaching, I assumed that the cultural differences between myself and non-white teachers were primarily stylistic, and that students could essentially be taught with the same techniques regardless of where they came from (excepting the occasional student who was a recent immigrant and needed additional language support). I did some things right -- having students work in small groups, building increasing responsibility for projects later in the term, and using varied instructional/learning activities -- but I was repeatedly frustrated with the poor performance on quizzes and tests, as well as an apparent inability to transfer ideas studied in one project into a new-but-analogous situation on another project.

I eventually identified one part of the problem: the assessments I used were language-intensive, and I simply wasn't giving the students enough opportunities to work with the vocabulary. I then consciously worked to integrate vocabulary and literacy practice into the last unit of the course, which helped to improve student performance. Still, they hadn't reached the level I had hoped for them to reach, and some of their final projects were disappointing to me in how little research the kids had done.

Delpit's book, and a visit to two successful "pilot schools" in Boston, helped me realize another component of the problem: literacy skills weren't the only skills I'd been failing to teach them. The work that I wanted my students to do in their final biology project required extensive research and analysis of sources; while I tried to scaffold the project while they were doing it, breaking the research into digestible chunks, I hadn't built in a training for "Informational Literacy" -- the skill set of recognizing useful sources of information and cleaning relevant data from them. I also hadn't done enough explicit training on critical thinking or (as a subset thereof) problem-solving strategies. In retrospect, this explains why so many of my students didn't even try to answer the high-scoring essay questions at the ends of my exams: I hadn't taught them the skills to even know where to begin.

I wish that I could say that these problems were limited to my first semester teaching biology, but a near-revolt among my 10th-grade physics class showed that I had committed the same mistakes and oversights with them. The homework assignments that I gave them required a practiced familiarity with several key principles of algebra, which our sophomores hadn't studied since last spring. Furthermore, because physics problems are invariably word problems, they had the added challenge of extracting meaning from the question, identifying the variables, plugging the variables into the correct equations, and then figuring out how to solve them using those rusty algebra skills. In retrospect, it's no surprise that so many of my students either left several questions blank or failed to turn in their homework at all.

So, now we're starting over from square one. I can't go back and fix what I did with the biology students, but I can at least focus on teaching my physics students the relevant skills they will need -- both for this class and for life in general. My current areas of emphasis are:

1.) Continued vocabulary training so that students can become familiar with the language of science.
2.) Teaching critical thinking skills. When people use their minds well, how do they approach problems?
3.) Building in refreshers for rusty math skills and explicit instruction (and practice) in the procedural skills necessary to do work in science -- whether that means dissecting a word problem or making measurements in the lab.
4.) Finding culturally-relevant examples of the ideas that we talk about in class. This may be the hardest part, but I have some ideas involving both cars and skateboarders...

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

How People Learn, Ch 1: From Speculation to Science

Reading this chapter has me excited to look at the science of learning in greater detail.I've realized over the course of this year that not everybody learns like I do, and that even the things that "worked" for me were not necessarily the best ways for me to learn.

I enjoyed the side discussion about "Fish is Fish", in which a fish is told about the terrestrial world by a frog and interprets everything the frog says through the filter of what the fish already knows. This is an aspect of learning and thinking that I think everybody needs to be made aware of; many of the difficulties and conflicts that come up between people (and communities, and nations) can be traced back to this sort of blindness to our own paradigms.

The book is absolutely right when it says that you have to address a student's mental framework (paradigm) in order to get them engaged in learning. There are two especially tricky things about dealing with flawed paradigms, though:

1.) People are generally oblivious to the fact that they have paradigms. A person's conceptual framework is so ingrained into how they see the world that they have no sense of how it limits them. Asking a person to be aware of his/her paradigms is like asking a fish to be aware of water.

2.) When you do confront people with the flaws in their paradigms, they often get really defensive about them. People don't want to discard their pre-established ways of looking at the world. It's threatening and uncomfortable, and it makes them feel stupid. People will often ride a flawed paradigm down into utter disaster, long after it becomes evident to everyone else that the framework is flawed (c.f. Operation Iraqi Freedom; Vietnam War; fiscal policy under Herbert Hoover; collectivist farms in Stalinist Russia; Roman Catholic Church re: geocentric model of the universe; et cetera, ad nauseum).

Since I'm going to be teaching physics in the spring, I have a big challenge ahead of me with confronting student paradigms. Somehow I need to address the many, many misconceptions they will have about how physics works, without making them feel threatened or attacked in the process.

It's going to be an interesting semester...

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Pre-assessment, "How People Learn"

"Creativity is a central source of meaning in our lives...most of the things that are interesting, important, and human are the results of creativity...[and] when we are involved in it, we feel that we are living more fully than during the rest of life."

“… flow – the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”

- Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
When and where in your life have you experienced learning experiences or activities like this, where you were so absorbed in what you were doing, you needed no extrinsic motivation to continue? When do you feel the most alive and interested in what you are doing?

I've always been driven by activities that engage my imagination, my sense of wonder, or both:

When I was a child I would play with my brother and my cousin with our stuffed animals, crafting elaborate stories of adventure and epic battles between good and evil. I have spent much of my time in the ensuing years as a storyteller; even now, I devote a large amount of my free time to creating a biweekly podcast for my fiction. It makes no money for me, but it is one of the most rewarding things I've ever done. I enjoy acting and cooking, both of which give me chances to create something new and interesting out of "raw" components. And I enjoy playing guitar, which gives me a chance to use my hands to make something beautiful.

My sense of wonder has always been well-developed. I remember going to aquariums and staring for hours at those creatures from another world; when we went to EPCOT Center, I was so entranced by "The Living Seas" that I didn't want to leave. Planetariums and the Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX evoked a similar feeling of awe. As I got older, I felt the same way about visiting museums, watching plays, walking through redwood forests, and reading novels, especially science fiction and fantasy. If someone can give me a glimpse of another world and populate it with interesting people (with interesting problems), I get sucked in really easily. I don't get to read as often as I would like, but there are some authors who I make appointments for: Jim Butcher, Kim Harrison, J. K. Rowling, Orson Scott Card, George R. R. Martin. When one of their books comes out, I drop everything else and devour it, sinking myself back into the world of those characters I've come to love so much.

Those are the two big requirements for "flow" for me: the chance to be creative, or the chance to encounter something new, awesome (in the older sense of the word), or wondrous.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Writing to Learn

In these two chapters we looked at the use of writing in formative assessments, largely in the form of note-taking and worksheets oriented around reading assignments. I'm reminded of a quote that has been variously attributed to Richard Hugo, E. M. Forester, and Saul Bellow: "How do I know what I think until I see what I write?" Writing sharpens thinking -- as I'm sure the REACH staff knew when they decided to assign us to write blog posts in response to our readings. :) We can take advantage of that by having students write in ways that will help to organize and clarify their thoughts.

One thing that I found helpful in the articles -- beyond the wide swath of different writing assignment tools, several of which look very promising -- is the notion of reading with a purpose in mind, and making that purpose clear to the students at the outset. It's not something I'd particularly thought about before, but it's true: the way I read, say, a biology textbook when researching a lesson is very different from the way I read a novel, which is different from the way I read a newspaper. Most of our students probably don't have much experience with reading for anything other than narrative, which can make other forms of reading confusing when they run into them. Using formative writing assignments will help our students to understand why they're reading what they're reading, which will hopefully help them to put the focus and effort where they are most needed.

In what ways do you currently use writing-to-learn strategies in your class?

I use "Do Now" writing assignments to activate background knowledge prior to a lesson, as well as to help them organize their thoughts about material we have discussed in previous lessons and make connections between those lessons and the new material. Sometimes these writing assignments are about purely factual issues, but often they are Thinking Questions that ask the students to speculate based on what they already know.

I have also used worksheets with short essay questions to have students respond to articles they have read. However, the amount of actual reading we have done in class so far is relatively little.

In what ways could you expand your use of these strategies?

I hope to address this tomorrow when I give my students an excerpt from "You Are Here" by Thomas M. Kostigen, in which he uncovers major ecological problems around the globe and looks at how the things we do have an impact on those problems (for good or ill). The book is part investigative journalism, part ecology lesson and part travelogue, and it makes for easy and engaging reading. Kostigen does a great job of bringing in the human element, showing (for example) the lives of illegal loggers in Borneo, or a small family of subsistence farmers in Amazonia. I am hopeful that it will help our students make connections between themselves and these far-off places where our innocent actions can cause so much lasting harm for everyone. This assignment would be a natural place to make use of a formative writing assessment, both to make the purpose of the reading clear and to help the students to identify parts of the text where they are making connections, suffering confusion or asking questions.

How can writing strategies help students “hold their thinking?”

I think that goes back to the quote at the beginning of the article: you don't really know what you think until you can put it into words. By giving students a chance to interact with the text in a structured way, you give them a chance to let their thinking crystallize so they can examine it further and compare it with the thinking of others. These structured writing assignments give students a "safe" way to comment on the text; they don't have to come up with a response out of thin air.

For the excerpt I'm going to give them tomorrow, I think that the double-entry diary and a set of "mission objectives" will give them the structure that they need in order to make sense of the reading. I'll also give them space to write down words they don't understand so we can deal with any vocabulary issues. I know that the students are doing lit circles in English right now, so they know how to engage in extended reading; hopefully I can touch base with Willi to get some pointers on how to make this happen smoothly.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Older Readers & Vocabulary

What specific words do you see as vital to your unit that students might have trouble with?

For the ecology unit, I've chosen to focus on the following words:

Ecology (duh)

Primary Consumer
Secondary Consumer
Top Predator



Keystone Species
Exotic Species
Invasive Species

How did you go about choosing these words?

These word lists follow some basic thematic groupings: Levels of Organization; Community Roles; Community Interactions; Resource Movement; and Ecological Disturbances. These are, to my mind, the basic concepts that need to be dealt with in order for someone to understand ecology, and the minimum vocabulary terms that you should have access to if you're going to have a serious discussion about ecology.

The activities that we did during the last week and a half focused on community roles and levels of organization. We'll be continuing to hit on those as we get into community interactions and resource movement over the next two weeks. I think that ecological disturbances should be introduced gradually as I touch on the topics related to each type of disturbance; for example, now that I've dealt with community roles, I can introduce the students to what happens when you take out a predator at the top of the food web, or when you remove a key prey resource that a secondary consumer depends on.

Alternatives to "Look it up in the Dictionary"

This was an excerpt from Words, Words, Words by Janet Allen, and it was one of the most resource-rich reading assignments we've had to date. Unlike some of the other chapters we've read, which were full of good ideas but had little in the way of illustration, this book actually shows us what these literacy tools are supposed to look like.

The chapter opens by pointing out something that I had never really considered about teaching vocabulary: for students who have a low literacy level, looking something up in the dictionary really isn't very helpful. This was rarely an issue for me as a child: since I had been reading for as long as I could remember, I had little trouble understanding most dictionary definitions. If they used a word I didn't understand, I'd look up that word. Ms Allen tells of a situation where this went awry for her students, and the anecdote is both funny and tragic:

I handed out lists of words and had students copy definitions and write the words in sentences. Still they didn't know the words. They asked me which definition to copy from the dictionary. I told them to copy the one that made sense, the one that fit the context. They looked at me as if I were an alien and asked, "Can we copy the shortest one?" None of the definitions made sense to them. Often they didn't even understand the words used in the definitions. (p. 33)

Another thing that she points out is that often the parts of a definition don't capture the whole. Defining "floozy" as "a slovenly or vulgar woman" doesn't really tell us the functional meaning of the word, i.e., a slut. Partly, this is the result of the dictionary using polite, circumspect language that doesn't fit the spirit of the word, but part of it is just that the definition can't capture the context in which the word is used.

In light of these limitations of dictionary definitions, the different graphic organizers and worksheets illustrated in this chapter are a life-saver. Some of them are a bit complicated for my kids at this stage, and some seem much better-suited to Humanities than Science, but there are some gems here that I think could be useful in my class:

Concept Attainment (Figure 3.2): This could be useful for some of the "big idea" words that we discuss in science, though I'd have to think about which words in particular are best suited to this sort of analysis.

Concept Ladder: This sounds like it might be good for pre-assessment on scientific concepts, but I'd like to see a copy of the worksheet first.

ABC x 2: This is another one I want to see a copy of. I'm not sure if it would be useful or not, but it sounds like it could be.

Knowledge Chart: I like this one a lot. It's similar to the KWL charts, except that the "W" column is missing and it's focused on a specific word rather than a broad concept.

Analysis Map: This is another one that seems like it would be a good thinking tool for "big idea" concepts -- not so much for teaching vocabulary initially as for helping them to organize their thoughts after they've had some instruction on a topic.

Context-Content-Experience: This one is really cool, but it also seems very cerebral and a little complicated to fill out. I'm impressed by the student who was able to draw examples from PE, Math and Science for the concept of "metamorphosis". I don't think my students are ready yet for this level of sophistication.

Words in Context: This could be really useful with science words, since it breaks up the target word into its separate parts. Most scientific words are made up of a fairly predictable set of components, and getting my students to recognize those components would be very helpful in their ongoing education. Of course, as Ms Allen points out, if you can fill out this worksheet on your own, you don't need it, so this is something we'd have to do as a class and/or in table groups.

Thinking Trees: This one immediately made me think of my students' end-of-the-year class project, which is to create a poster, handout and verbal presentation about an ecological issue. I love how the organizer moves the student from the broad to the narrow, from the general to the specific, and from problems to possible solutions. This could be really useful for organizing their thoughts and research in preparation for doing their posters.

The trick now is going to be figuring out which tools will give me the most "bang for the buck" with the small amount of time remaining in the semester. Ms Allen warns against weighing students down with too many worksheets, and the point is well-taken. How can I give my students the best support possible without giving them so much to do that they miss out on the point of the exercise?