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Saturday, December 31, 2011

Practice Makes Perfect

Over the past few years, I have been talking to teachers about the importance of extra practice.  Teachers days are so packed that they barely have the time to teach let alone build in practice time.  My professional reading has included the Outliers and The Talent Code.  Both books highlight the importance of extended and concentrated practice.  Each book focuses on how modern day experts (Bill Gates) achieved his level of expertise.  The Talent Code, does not just stop with the great leaders of our time.  It directly focuses on the young child who is highly engaged and just keeps practicing until they become virtuosos.  The need for extra practice does not result from a collection of studies.  No, this need is brain based.  How our brain "wiring" is developed determines our skill level.  The only way we can develop the skill is through repeated and deep practice.

So, its time to figure out how to chunk the many instructional responsibilities that we have in school and return to building in extra practice.  Most adults over the age of forty remember the endless extra practice sessions with the multiplication tables.  My teachers would clap out a rhythm while repeating the twos, the threes, etc.  This practice worked!

Checkout Daniel Coyle's (author of the Talent Code) site:  http://thetalentcode.com/
I know, readers are saying there just is not another minute in their day and the students do homework.  Sadly, to say, most homework is not designed as extra practice.  It is focused on having students finish one or more assignments.  Extra practice means deep engagement with the content, the skill.  It does not merely include finishing an assignment.  This deep practice is food for the brain.  It strengthens our "skill" wiring.  Deep practice is essential.

I believe that we can do more practicing in the classroom.  We can "chunk" the information that needs to be learned and present it to students at the beginning of instructional units as vocabulary that must be learned, concepts, skills.  Put the chunks in a graphic organizer (Kansas Learning features some great templates). Schedule in five to six five minute practice sessions each day for specific skill development. Finally, strategically plan homework for practice and not just homework completion.

One extra note, students have to be excited about learning and not just merely go through the routine.  Sparking this excitement is our craft.  We can do it!

Checkout Daniel Coyle's website (author of The Talent Code) http://thetalentcode.com/
Read, The Outlers, Malcolm Gladwell

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Forgotten Elements

As we need to maximize our instructional time, we need to look within our instructional lessons and design them for greater efficiency.  This efficiency can be captured through our attention to teaching the objective, building in frequent opportunities for checking for understanding and strategic monitoring as students are working.

Teaching the Objective:  Post the objective.  Have students read the objective chorally, and underline the key words and review the vocabulary in the objective to make sure students understand what they will be learning.  Refrain from writing the state standard as they often are too general.

Checking for Understanding:  There are numerous approaches that are used in classrooms.  A simple thumbs up and thumbs down.  Responding chorally or responding through hold up white boards or electronically all provide the feedback teachers need to judge the level of understanding with students.

Strategic Monitoring:  Anita Archer, International Consultant, is a real pro with strategic monitoring.  She explains her approach simply through:  Walk around, Look around, Talk around.  Refer to the checklist below.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Is It Possible to Teach Background Information?

School age children coming from low income homes or from homes of different cultures have difficulties in school because their background knowledge is different from the knowledge that is required in mainstream American schools.  We know that students coming from impoverished homes enter school with thousands of fewer words than students from higher socio-economic levels.  I am always mindful of those educators who say believe that students do not have background knowledge.  They do have knowledge.  It is just different than what is expected in school.  

Developing background knowledge is time well spent.  Students will increase their engagement and and success.

So, how can we promote background knowledge?  Here are some strategies:

1.  Teachers:  Know your material!  Teachers should read through material that is presented in any way and anticipate knowledge that will need to be developed.  I refer to direct and indirect knowledge.  Direct knowledge refers to specific references from the concepts being taught.  A simple example would be that apples, oranges, and pears are fruit.  If we are teaching the food groups, students would increase their understanding through the actual instruction.  An example of indirect knowledge is the ability to recognize an apple, orange or pear.  Indirect knowledge refers to information that we would expect students to know.  We expect students to be able to identify basic fruits.  But, if students don't have those fruits in their country, then we need to back up and make sure students understand the fruit we are discussing.  So, we bring in pictures and allow students to taste samples.  We might also bring in some fruits that are native to other countries besides the United States as well.  

2.  A picture is worth a thousand words:  At the start of each unit, I like to do a needs assessment.  I may ask a thought provoking question such as, Why could the North have been predicted to win the Civil War?  The students would then, do a picture walk through many pictures and with their partner list key information that they observed from the pictures. Then, they would try to formulate an answer to the question.  A less complex strategy asks the students what they learned from looking through the pictures and the questions they have.  

3.  Keep a running list posted of what students learn each day.  The list is started with the above activity.  At the end of class each day, the teacher would ask the students to share anything new they learned that day.  

4.  What are the Conclusions?  At the end of each week, the teacher takes the running list.  She can do either of 2 things.  She can ask the students to group and categorize the items from the list.  Or, she can have them already grouped.  The students then would apply a category label.  Then, with their categories, they would draw some conclusions.  Example:  Well, we know that the North had a more industry than the South.  We also know that there was a large growth in the use of machines.  This would have given the North an advantage over the South.  

5.  Talk and Talk:  One way students develop background knowledge is by talking to other people.  Students who are second language learners or from lower socio-economic backgrounds can benefit from talking to others.  Talk and Talk is a strategy that allows students to engage in very brief conversations around a central concept.  The question is posted on Monday.  Each day, the students meet in different pairs to gather input from their peers.  On Friday, they would work with a partner to draw conclusions and to apply what they have learned.  While students are reporting out each day, the teacher uses paraphrasing to frontload key vocabulary within the context of the student's report.  She also asks clarifying questions to help build understanding.  

6.  Word Walks:  Word Walks help students think about important words in a piece of text and how those words contribute to the meaning of the text.  Given a piece of information based text, on the Civil War, for example, the students "walk" through the text circling important words.  The words are then connected with a line.  The students then draw a conclusion or share what they have learned as it applies to a central question.  When doing a Word Walk, students need to be taught how to identify important meaningful words before they attempt this activity.  

7. Act It Out:  The most powerful lesson that I have observed was in a middle school classroom studying American History.  The teacher was trying to have the students understand the meaning of slavery.  He did a read a loud from Roots and the conditions on the slave ship.  Then, he had a group of students lay under two tables.  He had another group of students lay on top of the tables.  He took a large rope and wrapped it around each student's ankle symbolizing the chain.  Then, he encouraged all of the students to begin asking questions or making comments.  Soon the students began to get the idea of the dehumanization that occurs in slavery.  

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Pleasantly Surprised!: Testing for Learning

It's almost time to return to the classroom.  Each teacher is armed with renewed energy and resolved to teaching for higher rates of learning.  Designing an assessment sequence that both teaches and assesses learning is really important.  After a number of years of working with at-risk students, I found this technique to be extremely effective.  Students were able to genuinely earn high marks and demonstrate their learning.  I have used this testing for learning process with fourth through ninth grade students.  

Here is the situation:  the unit is taught and is almost complete.  It is time to review for the test.  I planned a two-stage review.  The first stage included a study guide which mirrored the content of the test.  The guide was written using various assessment options (multiple choice, true false, short answer, short essay) giving students practice with different testing options and giving me an opportunity to routinely review how to manage these questions.  Completion of the study guide was worth half of the points of the test.  Stage Two included a Quiz Bowl.  Those students who completed the study guide (100% of the students completed it regularly)  were able to participate in a Quiz Bowl.  Items from the study guide were cut up and put into a bowl.  The class divided into teams of 5-6 students.  Students took turns answering questions.  A question was selected out of the bowl.  If the question was answered correctly on the first try, the team received 10 points.  If the student was unable to answer the question, he could caucus with his team.  A correct answer received 5 pts.  If the question could not be answered, then the question was passed to the next team. If it was answered, then the team received 15 pts.  If it was not answered, the answer was provided by the teacher and the question returned to the bowl.  Play proceeds until all questions are answered or until the time runs out.  The test is taken on the day following the Quiz Bowl.  I have found that my most resistant students responded positively to this multiple stage review process.  

Those who question this process tell me that they don't have the time in their curriculum for a two day review and test process.  It is true that this process does take time.  But, it is also true that teachers can expect almost 100% of their students to succeed.  I believe in structuring our classrooms for success.  This process allows success to happen!  Plus, teachers will feel like their effort is worthwhile.  Testing for Learning is a win-win situation for all!  

Creating an Unmistakable Impact

Dr. Jim Knight's latest book, Unmistakable Impact: A Partnership Approach for Dramatically Improving Instruction is on my best book list for the summer.  Dr. Knight focuses upon school as a system and how to develop a school that will have an "unmistakable" impact on the learning of both adults and students.  This well designed book is structured to create a lasting impression with the reader.  The message is loud and clear in every chapter:  we need to create caring partnerships in school uniting staff and students with the goal of dramatic improvement. Dr. Knight defines what a partnership looks like and includes.  Then, he applies that definition to those who make are responsible for improvement efforts in schools:  teachers, principals, and instructional coaches.  He provides in-depth explanations with real examples of how to design and connect professional development workshops with the mission of the school and those charged with carrying out that mission.  The book is rich with wonderful resources to read in further depth.  Throughout the book, Dr. Knight emphasizes a goal of 90% engagement for all!  Unmistakable Impact had a huge impact on me as I am sure will have on you too!

Monday, June 20, 2011

Active Monitoring

Dr. Anita Archer is a pro with active monitoring.  She makes sure that every student is engaged at all times.  How does she do it?  Besides teaching very systematically and checking for understanding frequently, she takes learning walks among her students as they are working.  Now, these walks aren't passive strolls past students.  Dr. Archer stops, listens, questions, and takes notes.  When she resumes instruction, she begins by reviewing what she has learned from her walk.  Using a document projector, acknowledges the contribution of students by writing their name and listing what she observed.  Exampe:  "I found it very interesting when Beth said that Charlotte was always looking out for Wilber.  Why do you think Beth made that comment?"

Check-out Anita's website on Explicit Instruction.  She has video clips demonstrating this technique and more!  http://explicitinstruction.org/