First try with the students

Well planned and ready to teach, in fact eager to teach, I had a challenging day today.  On my mission to teach kids to think I discovered how much kids don’t really know how to think.  2 sections of my day were dedicated to practicing new teaching techniques incorporating Formative Assessment and deeper questioning to prepare my students for the upcoming Common Core, and of course to become better thinkers.  Both lessons today were Comprehension lessons.  To give a little background I teach fourth grade and I have 35 students in a Title 1 school district.

Lesson 1.

Target: I can visualize and summarize what I read in order to explain the headings the author used and give examples form the text that support the heading.

We read and I asked my well thought out questions.  My advanced and proficient students caught on very quickly and were giving me page numbers and citations from the page to connecting the heading to the text.  The lesson went fairly well.

3 good things that happened.

1. We finished reading all intended information for the day ( often we fall behind by discussing everything instead of focusing in on one specific task)

2.Students were able to give page numbers and sentences from the text that support the heading.

3. Students are excited to learn about the subject matter. ( probably because I showed a video first to get them interested.)

3 areas that can be improved.

1. Less active students are still not very active.

2. I neglected to have students explain the headings, they gave support but didn’t think further than that

3. The students struggled to follow directions and had to be encouraged to look at the page or sentence being offered by another student as evidence.  In other words they didn’t appear interested in what their classmates were sharing.  They were interested in me but not each other.  How do I build the collaborative environment???

I ended this lesson with the ticket out the door strategy asking students to make a connection to the video I showed to introduce the story and the parts of the story we read today.  This turned out to be more difficult of a task for them then I had thought. Many simply wrote something they had learned not actually making a connection to the video.  Of 31 students 4 used the words ‘connect to’ .  We are going to have to work on this.

Lesson 2.

Cold read comprehension.  We have been doing this kind of activity all year.  This is the lesson in which I had planned out an entire trajectory of learning targets for the week each building on the last with the main objective to understand a piece of writing and be able to tell the main idea and organization of the piece. Although familiar this is still challenging for them.  The goals were to identify key words in a paragraph,  see how paragraphs relate to each other, find the author’s purpose including the main idea and text structure.  Today I modeled finding the key concepts in a paragraph then asking students to work in groups of 3 to find the key concepts in a different piece of writing.  This strategy is one I have been teaching for a while.  It didn’t work very well.

3 things that went well

1. most of the students worked well in their groups contributing and listening

2.I observed students actually reading and rereading the text to find key concepts.

3. . . . I can’t think of a third 😦

3 things we need to work on

1. Students were asked to write 2-3 key words but I was getting sentences

2. many groups completely missed the point of the paragraphs and were struggling to find key words

3. Only 1 group successfully duplicated what I had modeled

To culminate this activity I asked the groups to write one thing that was hard for them and one thing that was easy for them.  I got responses like “the beginning was easy and the end was hard” and “finding words was easy and the hard part was finding words” and “the hard part was finding words it was easy using context clues”  This tells me that they really didn’t get what they were doing. Their meta-cognition is lacking. Tomorrow we are going to try the “Keep it/Junk it” strategy.  I wrote out all the keywords the students found in their groups.  Tomorrow they will decide if they should keep each individual word or junk it while providing reasons for their decisions. We’ll see how that goes.

Not a great start, but a start.

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Still attempting hurdle #1

ARGH!!  I am trying to finish my plans for next week.  And I have planning block.  Ironically my planning block is bringing about some Aha! moments for me.  I’m having trouble finishing because of the learning target part of Formative Assessment.  To clarify, this is where you clearly relate the learning intention to your students.   They should know exactly what they are learning and how they are learning it.  It is not just “This is what you are learning today”  it is not just the standard or even the objective of a lesson.  It is a goal for the students to aim for- a target.   I should be able to state what they should be learning TODAY in relation to the LONG TERM goal for the unit.  Marrying this with a scripted curriculum is a huge challenge for me because the curriculum  is written in a spiral,  little bits rotating with other bits that repeat here and there.  I’m still digging through this mess and will update as I go.

My Aha! moment is realizing why so many teachers may be  ineffective excellent teachers. It is because they are trying to do it all in every lesson.  This process is meant not only to focus the students on what and how they are learning (making them better thinkers) but also to focus the teacher.  To keep the teacher focusing on the same goal while teaching.  Not diverting.  Not teaching a little bit here and a little bit there hoping somehow the student will put it all together and be smart- like the curriculum says to.  So the AHA! is that to be an effective teacher I need to be just as focused as my learning target.  Well planned and deliberate.  Small goals that lead to bigger goals. This takes some serious thought.  Serious time.  Planning is becoming a marathon when it used to be a sprint.  I have to straighten out this spiral and make this curriculum more intentional. My lessons used to be loosely planned.  These pages on these days following prompts in manual to teach these  skills or this strategy, easily diverted as I went along.  Now I’m building a pathway to follow rather than meandering along. But the path is unclear thus my frustration.

I must get back to work now.

Hurdle #1- Getting Started

So the research is done. Now What? I took an afternoon with no students in attendance to plan my first week of Formative Assessment experimentation.  Before I explain how this went let me give you a little background.

Formative Assessment is a method of helping students be better thinkers.  A teacher should start with detailed solid planning.  The plan should include a detailed target telling students what their learning goal is, how to reach it, and where they currently are in relation to reaching it.  The plan should be to introduce this goal, model with well thought out questioning, performance of understanding (practice), feedback that feeds forward, and a golden second chance to correct themselves right then and there within the lesson.  Sounds great huh?

But as an elementary teacher I teach 8 subjects (word analysis, vocabulary, comprehension, grammar, spelling, writing, math, and social studies or science or art or music) every day. At least I’m supposed to.  So as I sat down to do this detailed planning I froze.  Am I really supposed to write a learning target with great questions, design/choose a performance of understanding for each one?!  Brick Wall!!!

So I decided to focus on one area at a time. I chose Comprehension (a great thinking subject) as my focus.  I have to get my feet wet, not necessarily jump into the middle of the ocean right??  So I examined the story and what students are expected to know by the end of the week.  I wrote 2 main goals for the students to meet by end of week.  Goals that follow this format; “I will be able to explain ____.” And then I asked myself how they would reach those goals, and how they would know they are reaching those goals. To further complicate matters, my curriculum is designed to teach reading strategies, reading skills, and analyzing what a writer does within each weekly story selection.  My learning target seems to be getting muddier and muddier rather than clearer. Should I change the goal to focus on strategies only? Skills only? Or the thinking goals I came up with that will help them on the weekly test?

So here is what I decided to do.  I hope it works(fingers crossed). With my original 2 goals in mind, I designed  sub-goals or sub targets that specifically deal with the strategies and skills for the week including a series of questions for each lesson.  Monday’s lesson will focus on my first goal using reading strategies as the tool to reach that goal.  The same will happen Tuesday with focus on the second goal.  Both days have a short written task to give me evidence of how close students are to reaching the goal. Then we will revisit the two goals and use the comprehension skill of the week to reinforce those goals Wednesday.  That is as far as I got. I have a target, a series of questions, and a short performance of understanding planned for each day. I don’t feel like it’s enough.  But that took me a few of hours. And I feel that I need clarity and/or distance before slogging any further.  Next step, revisit the research and finish next weeks plans.

This is not any easy process.  Complicated doesn’t quite describe it.  But the end product will be thinking students, who can come up with original ideas and back them up.  That will be a sweet day.  Trial and error.  This is my first try.  I’ll let you know how it goes.  It’s not the whole process of Formative Assessment, but it’s solid bite.