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?

Saturday, November 8, 2008

After Third Grade

This article from Educational Leadership was more of a meta-analysis than an actual research piece; the authors combed through a bunch of papers for strategies found to be successful in promoting literacy among older students, then compiled the ones that were the most consistently useful here in this paper. By their very nature, meta-analyses deal in generalities, so there isn't a lot of "meat" here, but it's a good overview for teachers who want to promote literacy in their classroom.

The key thing that I took away from this article was that literacy promotion requires a comprehensive, integrated approach across subjects. Teachers need to work together to coordinate comprehension training; students need to work together in teams so that the stronger readers can assist the weaker ones; school libraries need to have a diverse mix of reading material across subject areas; multimedia techniques need to be incorporated with more traditional methods, so that students can successfully use the forms of literacy needed in the 21st century (including navigation of hypertext and cross-correlation of text, sound and video). Everything needs to work together with everything else in a way that is purposeful.

It really brought home to me how much work we still need to do at ARISE on interdisciplinary integration. Willi, Paul and I do talk about our plans and try to hit on similar themes in our classes, but ultimately we each have our own little worlds inside our classrooms, and there isn't a lot of integration between them. That's something we're going to need to do better at in coming years if we want to give our students the best literacy support possible.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Strategies That Work: Possible Unit Texts

What are the possible texts you will be using in your literacy unit? What challenges do you see these texts posing to your students in terms of comprehension?

I'm currently working on teaching a unit on ecology. This is a vocabulary-intensive field, so literacy techniques should prove very useful here. I've already started using "Vocabulary Note Cards" to give the students a chance to work with the language before encountering it in their reading.

It's hard to find good entry-level texts on ecological issues. There are picture books for young children and thick nonfiction tomes written for well-educated adults, but there isn't much out there for teens and less literate adults who might want to know about the issues affecting our planet. Because of that, I'm falling back on periodicals. I've started scanning the newspaper each morning while I ride the BART, looking for articles about environmental/ecological issues that we could discuss in class. I should also go to the library and see if I can find some good magazines for our use.

The biggest challenges I anticipate are (1) articles with a lot of vocabulary terms and (2) articles that are written above the reading level of most of my students. I'd like to challenge them a little, but not so much that they get frustrated and give up.

Looking at the lists of strategies that good readers use, which strategies do you think would prove most useful to your students in their comprehension of the text you give them?

  • Monitoring comprehension is foundational, I think. If you don't know when you're lost, you can't take any steps to correct it.
  • I like the idea of using sticky notes to make notes on the text. While I wouldn't have any problem with them writing on photocopied newspaper articles, I notice what the authors said about students filling up sticky notes where before they couldn't write more than a few lines on a blank page.
  • One technique that they didn't explicitly mention in the text is the Socratic seminar. Our students have practiced this technique a few times in Advisory, and I think it lends itself well to the (often-contentious) debates about ecological issues.

I also want to talk to Willi about the strategies she is using in Humanities. The students are currently doing literature circles, so I think it would aid buy-in if we could use the same techniques in both classes.

A final thought: One of the things this week's assignment has done is to make me more aware of my own literary comprehension -- or lack thereof. Every time I sat down to work on the homework for this week, I found my eyes crossing in short order. Partly, I think this is because of the lack of visual aids; this book has long stretches of uninterrupted text about techniques that are not really explained very thoroughly (at least not in these opening chapters). I tend to learn complex concepts more easily when charts and diagrams are employed. Of course, my fatigue is no doubt another factor; I've hit the end-of-semester drag, I'm only sleeping five or six hours per night, and I'm running into a chain of discouraging events at school. It probably says a lot that I devoured that first chapter last Thursday, when I'd only had to teach one lesson and it had gone quite well, whereas now I'm having a hard week and trying to read this stuff on my own.

There's a lesson there for teachers: the stuff going on in your students' lives is going to affect their ability to absorb new content, especially via reading. Most of my students are far less literate than I am, so if I'm having trouble reading my assignments, how much more are they!