Thursday, October 23, 2008

Literacy Pre-Assessment

1.) What was your own early experience as a reader? When did you learn to read? What do you remember about it?

I've been reading literally for as long as I can remember. By the time I entered kindergarten I was reading NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC on my own. I didn't understand all the words, of course, but I understood enough to keep me engaged with the content.

When I was in elementary school and middle school I used to read the dictionary for fun. I loved learning about words, where they came from, and how they were related to other words. I was home-schooled from 3rd grade on, and Mom used to have me start every day with a "Word of the Day" diary: I had to look up a new word, write down its definition, and use it in a sentence. Typically, the search for one interesting word would lead me to six others. Even into my teens and twenties, I would often go to the dictionary to look up one word, then become side-tracked and spend half an hour jumping from one word to another, absorbing new vocabulary. Dad used to shake his head in amazement when he would come into the family room and find out that the book I was curled up with was a dictionary.

One big part of my early literary experience was when my Mom would read to my brother and me. This continued even into my early teens. She read to us from The Chronicles of Narnia, The Phantom Tollbooth, Mr. Revere and I, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, the Redwall series by Brian Jacques, several books by Jules Verne, and others that I've since forgotten. Listening to a very fluent reader like Mom helped me to understand how books were supposed to be read: dynamically, with proper emphasis and emotion. (Sometimes a little too much emotion: Mom used to get choked up at the ends of a lot of our books, to the extent that it became a running gag. She would bury her face in the book and make loud weeping noises, and the resulting laughter would relieve enough of the tension for her to go on.) Hearing such a wide variety of words spoken aloud also greatly enhanced our oral vocabulary.

As I grew older, I would often return the favor by reading to Mom. I used to sit in the kitchen while she was making dinner, either working on schoolwork or reading for pleasure. When I found an interesting passage, newspaper story or magazine article, I would read it to her and then we would talk about it. The content ranged from serious editorials to book excerpts to Dave Barry columns, so I got a lot of experience in reading different kinds of content aloud. Looking back on it, Mom and I were almost a two-person forensics team.

2.) As you grew older, what was your experience with reading in school? What (if anything) did you like to read? Pay particular attention to your reading experience at the age of the students you teach now. What was reading like for you at that age?

Early high school was a very exciting time for me as a reader because the first of the new STAR WARS novels began coming out at that time. I had fallen in love with science fiction and fantasy in general, and with Star Wars in particular, so the existence of all new stories with my favorite characters was cause for rejoicing. Timothy Zahn didn't write down to his audience, so those were highly stimulating books for me to read, even if they weren't what you would call highbrow literature.

Mom had me read some of the classics, in addition to the modern SF/Fantasy stories that I tended to choose on my own. I remember, at various points in my schooling, reading The Red Badge of Courage, Animal Farm, one of the Huck Finn books, and Black Beauty; I'm sure there were others, too, but they've faded from my recollection. I also had to read Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet for my Shakespeare class.

During my teen years I also read through the Bible, in its entirety, at least twice. I had been reading the Bible on my own from a relatively early age -- first using a simplified children's translation, then the Living Bible paraphrase, and finally the NIV -- but it was when I got into high school that I really started to make a serious habit of it. Between daily readings on my own and discussions in youth group and Sunday school, I became very familiar with the unusual language used in the scriptures and modern religious texts.

Besides novels and the scriptures, I also read magazines, newspapers, and (especially) comic books, which became a major addiction of mine during this time period. Except when we were dining together as a family, I never ate without reading something -- even if it was just the cereal box in front of me. I also used reading as a refuge from social interaction, since I was rather shy and very self-conscious about my weight, appearance and lack of social skills. During family gatherings, when other kids were playing whiffle-ball or throwing darts, I would be the one inside on the couch with a book in my hands. Reading was a precious comfort to me at one of the most difficult times in my life, and I would retreat to that shelter whenever I could get away with it.

3.) Answer the same question with regards to writing.

I've been telling stories since at least first grade, when we had a story contest at my Montessori school and they brought in someone to type our stories for us while we dictated them. (Mine was about two friends, an icthyosaurus and an elasmosaurus. Yes, I was a dinosaur nut -- and no, those aren't actually dinosaurs. At the end of the story they went home to eat pancakes.) My story won third place, thus creating a monster that persists to this day. :)

Once I got into home-schooling, Mom used creative writing as a way to engage me in assignments that were otherwise making me drag. I remember the first time she did this: I was either seven or eight, and doing an assignment for science about cleaner wrasses. I enjoyed learning about them, but I was bored with the idea of a written report. Mom suggested that I write her a story about them, and that sounded like a lot more fun. The result was a whimsical story about cleaner wrasses who ran a "service station" for bigger fish, which was being threatened by a group of "gangsters" who were sabre-toothed blennies. It was the sort of thing that somebody might have made a movie about a generation later, but at the time it was wonderfully obscure, and it made the project a lot more fun.

It also opened the floodgates. I wrote another story the year after that one, a long and rambling journey into weirdness that was equal parts The Phantom Tollbooth and Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. In the early 1990s I wrote a series of stories based on adventures that my cousin Monica, my brother Casey and I had acted out with our stuffed animals during our younger years. In 1995 I had a dream that inspired me to write a novella about a woman who was changed into a wolf. In 1996-98 I worked on a set of novellas about shapeshifting aliens who protected the Earth (and other primitive planets) from the classic UFO-flying "Greys"; I completed two of the planned set of six stories, then got halfway through the third before I realized it wasn't working and abandoned it.

In 1996 I also joined an online writers' group, where I got interested in shared story universes. I started small at first, putting out a couple of character intro stories and a few other bits here and there. By 1998 I was deeply involved with the community and had helped do a huge amount of world-building for the Metamor Keep story universe, which eventually spawned my own spinoff of Metamor City. I continued writing off and on throughout my college and grad school years, eventually completing my first full-length novel earlier this year.

Writing nonfiction has never been as interesting for me as writing fiction, but it wasn't hard, either. The hardest part of writing good nonfiction was doing the research. All those years of reading anything and everything that I could get my hands on helped to build my feel for what it meant to write in different genres. I served as the editor for my youth group's newspaper, which gave me practice in writing editorials and other forms of persuasive writing (as well as editing other people's writing, which was both torturous and the best thing I could have done to build my own writing skills). I got consistently high marks for my written papers when I got into college, and it wasn't until I had to write my thesis for grad school that I learned of my biggest flaw as a non-fiction writer: too much of a propensity for overstatement and excessively flowery language. I blame my fiction writing for that. ;-)

4.) Thinking about your own classroom right now, what role does literacy play in your class? What do you want to learn how to do better in your classroom to support your students in subject-specific literacy?

One thing that came out in my reading of the article was that I'm not doing a lot to build comprehension. I wrote my lab experiments with an informal style and simplified language, thinking that I could produce comprehension simply by not challenging their vocabulary too much. I didn't think about the fact that comprehension is a separate skill, and that the students might know 90% of the words on the page yet still be unable to derive meaning from it. No wonder most of my lab worksheets went unread!

Vocabulary is a constant struggle in science, as well. While I tried to scaffold understanding of many important terms, I don't think I did enough. I would put the words on the board, break them up into their roots and define the roots, and then try to explain the definition of the word -- but I don't think I was giving the students enough situations where they were forced to with those words while they were fresh in their minds, which might have helped them to retain the knowledge. I was appalled this past Monday when I discovered that one of my students -- who is poorly self-motivated but not stupid -- did not remember what homeostasis was. This, despite the fact that the whole unit has essentially been about homeostasis.

The article described a number of tools for practicing both vocabulary and comprehension, but it's difficult for me to build solid mental constructs about these tools when I'm just reading about them. I'd like to see these tools implemented in our REACH meetings, either as a group or one-on-one with Victoria, so that I can see them modeled and then practice using them. I want to give my students some better grounding in vocab and comprehension, especially as we're getting into the jargon-heavy field of ecology, but I won't feel like I really understand these tools until I have the chance to practice with them.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Inquiry vs. Content

This article struck a nerve for me, because it highlighted one of my ongoing insecurities about my own teaching: the fear that I haven't been effectively implementing the sort of inquiry-based approach to learning that I wanted to use. Given my students' poor performance on the quizzes after the early lab activities, I had to conclude that they retained very little of what I had tried to teach in those lessons.

How do you know students understand key points of your content?

I've been trying different approaches. The quizzes are intended to check for the ability to remember, comprehend, and analyze/synthesize concepts discussed in class. The students are improving in their ability on the first two points, but many of them haven't even tried to answer the more difficult written problems intended to check for the latter. Less formal checks for understanding, like asking them to explain concepts to me verbally, have mixed results.

Today I tried something new: I had my students do a written reflection for me on three questions related to the cardiovascular, digestive, and nervous systems. The focus of the questions was on how these different systems keep the rest of the body running. I also asked them to each identify one thing they understand now about biology that they didn't before, and the biggest thing we've talked about that they still don't understand. I haven't checked these papers yet, so I don't know how well they did. I do know that a lot of them wasted time during the class and didn't finish, even with the incentive of having the computers ready and waiting for them to use after they completed the assignment.

What skills/understandings do students need to know about learning your specific subject?

I'm trying to parse this sentence in order to answer it correctly. I think it's asking, not what specific skills and understandings must be gained by the end of the course, but what skills and understandings they will need in order to even begin learning effectively within my subject. The latter is a more difficult question, and also more interesting.

One thing that I think is key is the concept of the scientific method. This is something I haven't hit on heavily in the class up to now, and I think it's going to be crucial when we start to get into ecology. One can work through much of physiology without understanding how we learn things in science: the parts of the body and their functions are very well-characterized now, and it isn't necessary to understand the process of scientific inquiry in order to know how these parts work together. When we get into ecology, though, that's inherently fuzzier territory, and the system of observe-hypothesize-test-refine is going to be much more important. Scientific method is important both as an understanding (they need to get the reasoning behind it) and as a skill (they need to be able to do it, if they're going to do inquiry-based learning).

Another key understanding that underlies biology is that everything is connected to everything else. We study organs and organ systems in isolation, but it's critical to realize that these things function as parts of a unitary organism. Similarly, the different organisms in an ecosystem are closely tied together, both with other members of their own population and with other populations occupying different niches within the community. What affects one species affects the others it is connected to, as well.

How are you teaching this in your class right now?

Not well enough, to judge from the results. I'm going to need to put in some serious effort on this next unit to design inquiry-based lesson plans and get away from both all-traditional instruction and undirected hands-on exploration.

Oh, yeah: and I have to do it with two weeks less time than I thought I had.


Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Lesson Planning: The Real Story

How do I plan my lessons? Well, it goes something like this:

1.) At the beginning of the year I identified the topics that I wanted to teach and when I wanted to teach them. I worked out a syllabus with plans for where the major projects would go and came up with some general ideas for how I wanted to present certain aspects of the material.

2.) The actual lessons then got put together at more-or-less the last minute. Usually I'd be working until 10 or 11 the night before, writing out lab worksheets or putting together slides. Then the next day I'd have to do it all over again.

3.) Eventually I started coming up with some multi-day assignments that would save me from having to start again from scratch every night. I also brought in La Clinica to do a two-week sex ed program, which took up an hour of class every day and thus cut the amount of time I had to plan activities for in half. This probably saved my sanity when I was trying to catch up on grading for the mid-semester marking period.

4.) Currently I have the students working on a big mid-semester Public Health Project, which is taking up good-sized chunks of time with comparatively little direct instruction on my part. Again, this has saved my sanity. Gustavo and I are team-teaching this section, since he knows the computers and the community far better than I; together we broke down the PHP into small, digestible steps for each day's activities. This has greatly reduced the amount of last-minute planning that I need to do ... though Victoria and I were still working on scaffolding the whole idea of a Public Service Announcement on the morning that the project began. :)

In general, then, I would say that I tend to plan the Big Picture far in advance and do the details at the last minute. This works better at some times than others; I feel like I'm pretty good at coming up with ideas to present material -- something that several others have echoed -- but it's easy for me to get to that point where I feel overwhelmed by all the stuff on my plate.

On the bright side, I think that the second unit of this class was structured in advance much more than the first unit. On the other hand, we're running about a week and a half behind schedule, so some of the stuff I had in mind for Unit 2 isn't going to happen. Figuring out what to keep and what to toss is the next big challenge.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Science Framework

This was actually my third time examining the California content standards for the sciences. I had to go through this document with a fine-toothed comb when I was studying for my two rounds of CSET exams in early 2007 and early 2008. Of course, in those cases I had a month or more to review them, not four days in the middle of the midterm week. ^_^ Needless to say, I gave the document a far more thorough examination the first two times.

Now that I'm actually attempting to teach this stuff to students, my primary reaction to the list of standards is: "Yeah, great. And while I'm at it, let me spin some straw into gold for you." I have one semester to teach my students all the biology they will get in high school. Even with two-hour blocks --which I consider the absolute minimum to get anything accomplished in a lab course -- that's not remotely enough time to address all of the standards they present. I my planning this year by cutting down to three content areas, then eliminated one of those during the summer retreat. Now I'm at the end of the time I had set aside for the first unit, and my students still need more time working with this material to really get it. If they can leave my class with a genuine understanding of physiology and homeostasis, and nothing else, I'll count that a victory at this point.

Having high standards is all well and good, and I believe in holding students to a high bar for achievement. What I've discovered in the last seven weeks is the difference between a high bar and an impossible bar. My students are not prepared, at this age level and maturity level, to process all of the information that the Science Framework asks them to process. If I had four years with them, I might be able to build understanding of all of the content standards for one of the sciences. As it is, though, I need to choose between breadth and depth, and our school's charter is clear on which one wins out.

At any rate, a lot of the stuff they want students to know is really only of tangential importance:

Students know meiosis is an early step in sexual reproduction in which the pairs of chromosomes separate and segregate randomly during cell division to produce gametes containing one chromosome of each type.
(Biology Standard 2a)
Is meiosis an important biological concept? Yes, absolutely -- if you're planning on pursuing a degree in biology. As such, it's absolutely an essential standard for a university-level bio course. But I feel fairly safe in saying that most of my students do not need to know this. I would much rather throw out all of meiosis, all of Mendelian Genetics, and spend extra time on proper sex education and risk assessment. It doesn't matter how much they know about how sex works, on a genetic level, if they don't understand how to make good choices about their own sexual reproduction.

The key here is to separate out the important from the relevant and timely. Many of the content standards fall into the former but not the latter. Unfortunately, as long as the government bureaucrats overseeing school "reform" fail to understand that distinction, it's likely that we're going to keep bashing our heads against the wall, throwing a mountain of information at students and hoping desperately that it sticks.