Some notes from some recent online courses and readings about effective online teaching.
This year, the teachers in the English Department at YIS have been focusing on close reading skills and strategies. This goal was chosen after examining a range of student work samples in order to identify areas to improve.
What we noticed was that the students had an inconsistent approach to close reading assessments. More specifically, some students were developing excellent interpretations of the various texts they were studying but their annotations lacked an exploration of how this message was being communicated. Conversely, other students had detailed annotations of stylistic devices but were not able to synthesise these into a cohesive interpretation of the text.
After researching a number close reading strategies (such as AVID), we noticed that good close reading strategies seemed to have a number of things in common:
- Starting with a previewing / skimming / reading strategy. Unknown vocabulary should also be researched at this stage.
- ‘Chunking’ (separating and grouping) the text into segments.
- Summarising each of these segments in a pithy sentence (the ‘what’). This would involve underlining key/essential information.
- Analysing how the author is communicating each message (the ‘how’). This would involve circling subject-specific techniques that the author is using, particular to the focus of study for the lesson (e.g. poetic devices, techniques of bias in news etc.)
- Synthesising all of this information into a concise, precise thesis statement.
In the department we have simplified these steps into an easy-to-remember three step process called CSI (chunk-summarise-inquire).
After trialing the strategy for a number of months, we noticed that our students’ close reading annotations became more detailed and comprehensive. Students also liked the strategy, saying that it gives them a clear and easy-to-follow process to use when encountering a text. However, they also stated that it would be difficult to use in a timed commentary writing (exam situation). Still, it has become a useful tool for close reading learning experiences.
Our next reading strategies to investigate are skimming/previewing and evaluating arguments.
Recently I tried an alternative approach to a series of essay drafting lessons in English class. After reading a novel, students were asked to show their understanding of themes and symbols in the literary work by crafting a five paragraph essay. With a range of abilities in the class, it was clear that a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach (e.g. same deadlines) was not entirely appropriate. I redesigned the series of lessons (2-3) with some principles of blended learning in mind:
– Student paced – with a ‘playlist’ of activities, students would work through the editing process at their own pace. Having a ‘soft’ deadline, rather than the same date helps with this.
– Mastery (progressive) – students were not allowed to advance until the next stage until the previous had been completed.
– Dynamic grouping – break out sessions to help students struggling with particular aspects of the essay.
The step-by-step process was as follows:
1. Draft essay (after scaffolding and brainstorming work #1 and #2)
2. Learn about editing vs. proofing –> check in with me about definitions
3. Self-edit using checklist
4. Peer edit using same checklist
5. Conference with peer – discuss feedback
6. Reflection – students took ideas into account and made suggestions for their own work
7. Teacher edit –> check in with me about these suggestions; give own feedback
8. Start final draft
There were a couple of occasions where students were idle (e.g. when waiting for a peer or me to check work). During these times students were encouraged to participate in anchor activities (activities to stop them ‘floating away’), including ongoing vocabulary, reading and grammar work with the iPad iTooch software or DEAR reading.
These were really excellent lessons and I want to adopt this approach more frequently in the future. I noticed the following benefits:
– more time in class to formatively assess (free to roam and ask questions)
– more one-on-one conversations (from check ins, could correct misunderstandings quicker)
– students not frustrated by slow or fast pace (time for slower students, anchor activities for faster students)
– decreased stress for slower students (more time, deadline fair)
– more student ownership over pace of lessons
– and best of all: marking and feedback time for me was vastly reduced in terms of intensity – marking was more ‘spaced out’, which meant that I could get feedback to the students more quickly as well.
For my professional growth plan this year I have been investigating texts on neuroscience findings and their implications for education. One book I read was John Medina’s excellent Brain Rules. I think some of the points were more salient to my subject area (English language and literature) than others, and so I have attempted to suggest possible changes to my practice to promote a more ‘brain friendly’ environment in the class using only four of these rules. (Some of the others are more institutional in nature and out of my hands!)
In short, I have made two important immediate modifications to my planning for teaching and learning:
1) Repetition and Connections (rules 5 and 6). Our units of inquiry can be problematic, as we can fall into the trap of trying to give too much information to the students at once. To correct this, I have created ‘bridging units’ that are short, formative one or two week courses that run between larger units and revise / introduce topics that come both before and after. Also, I try to revisit concepts, language terms and texts from earlier in the year as much as possible.
2) Attention and Sensory Integration (rules 4 and 9). People don’t learn effectively if they are not interested in the topic. I have started trying to emotionally engage students to regain attention, every 10 minutes or so, with a funny anecdote that relates to the topic of study. (It is nice to have people listen to your ‘lame’ jokes and stories sometimes, so this is working out well for me!) Also, I have started trying to employ more video clips and sound/music to teach literary concepts. (Flocabulary is a great site for this!)
I will keep thinking about more ways to create a more ‘brain friendly’ English classroom! My summary is embedded below.
Normally, my classroom looks like this. Four groups of tables together, with me as the teacher either at the whiteboard or floating around the classroom. While I really enjoy the small group-based, collaborative learning, I felt that I had no real way of thoroughly and comprehensively checking for understanding. Also, some more advanced students would become bored and might become frustrated having to take all the responsibility to help the lesser-abled students all the time. Lessons proceeded at a uniform pace, dictated by me, whether learning was happening or not.
To address this problem, I thought that I could adopt mastery and dynamic grouping ideals to slightly transform my classroom. While I have often kept my four groups of tables, I have sometimes shifted the classroom into a large ‘U’ shape, with tables facing the wall. In the middle of the ‘U’ I have kept a slightly larger table. Now, after exploring a significant piece of content with the students, I have taken to using socrative.com as a piece of technology to instantly assess who is understanding a particular concept and who is struggling. The next lesson, when a student comes in, they get to go to personal learning time (PLT) with a set ‘playlist’ of extension activities for the particular topic we did the previous day. If they did not perform well with the quiz, I sit with them in the middle table and go through the exercises in a different way. I then asked them to take the quiz again and only when they had achieved a perfect score would they be able to go to PLT as well.
So far I have done this twice. The first time students were writing an analytical essay on themes in a novel. After doing some drafting, students were asked to join the middle table for one or more of the areas of need that I identified (content, organisation or style and language mechanics). I then held mini-writer’s workshops for these activities. The second time we were looking at literary devices in poetry – we completed the activity in a similar manner, each time using socrative.com as a tool to gain instant feedback.
The key differences were that I have now split my role in half. For the first lesson (or exposition lesson), I maintain my traditional role and classroom structure. For the ‘confirmation of understanding’ lesson, I set up the PLT playlists, use technology to more frequently assess student understanding, and become a small group coach. In this brief time I have noticed in the students an increased desire to ‘get the questions right’ rather than brush off understanding of similes, metaphors and idioms as useless knowledge. Transitioning between activities is still noisy and clunky, so I have some work to do here. I would like to continue this process, but rather find a way to announce student groupings (PLT or coaching?) in a more indirect, discrete manner to avoid embarrassment. Also, the room is small and so I need to devise a way to do the oral coaching while not disturbing the extension PLT students – perhaps a different space?
Overall I hope this written account gave you a clear idea about the change I have implemented and my thoughts on the process. Not as interesting as a video I know, but thank you for taking the time to read and offer any feedback – I really appreciate it.
PS: I have attached a photo of the ‘traditional’ classroom layout I typically use for an exposition lesson. For the follow-up coaching, if you could imagine most of the tables up against the wall with chairs facing the wall and one grouping of tables in the middle. Our students have a 1:1 Mac program which makes implementing this PLT time pretty easy!
As a part of my Coursera course, I was expected to design and implement an aspect of blended learning in my classroom and submit it for peer evaluation. I will post my summary in a following post, however I wanted to put the link for one school I was responsible for peer assessing – the difference in appearance of the students from ‘before’ to ‘after’ was quite stark.
Before the new blended learning process was implement the students seemed quite passive, even bored. The teacher was ‘the sage on the stage’ and seemed to be doing all the work. In the second video, the increased energy, activity and enthusiasm among the students seems quite palpable.
Thank you to Seton High School for sharing your trial!
I am approaching the end of my Coursera blended learning course, and now it is time to put the theory into action!
Here is the process that was recommended. It is based on three models of innovation and design, mainly: ‘Design Thinking’, ‘Lean Startup’ and ‘Discovery-Driven Planning.’
– 1) Get clear on objectives (focus should be on learning, not the technology)
– 2) Decide how to measure results (not just test scores or quantitative data, can also look at time, student engagement, qualitative observation from peers or using a camera; student voice feedback)
– 3) Commit to action (not just a theory – get you hands dirty and try with students!)
– 4) Create mini-tests (like the ‘minimum viable product’ in business – a quick, cheap easy way to test out a part of something before doing the whole thing; prototyping, small batch testing)
– 5) Collect feedback (test scores, observations (another teacher or camera to monitor what happens; also focus groups and surveys from students)
– 6) Keep iterating (look at what worked and do more; looked at what didn’t and either address the concern or back away; continue this process!)
At the moment I am just beginning step 2. After having decided my goals (I want to use ideas of dynamic grouping and mastery to effectively differentiate for the students: identify students who need particular help on a certain topic while creating a ‘challenge playlist’ for the advanced students to extend their learning on a particular topic. I need to decide how to collect the data on this…
Work in progress!
Resources to help choose software
– Crowdsourcing (taking reviews of users)
– Common Sense Media: Good place for reviews of tech. New service called ‘Graphite’
– Edsurge: Weekly newsletter about education technology. Creating the ‘ed tech index’ – based on teacher reviews
– Ed Shelf ST Math review:
– EdSurgeST Math review:
– Common Sense ST Math review:
This week in my Coursera course they outlined four types of software that need to be distinguished for blended learning:
1) Four types of software
Whole course: replace an existing course. Software does most of teaching/learning. Teacher is purely to drop in and check progress. Examples: Apex Learning, K-12, Edgenunity. Easier to use, but less personalised.
Supplemental: support core course. Teacher still designs and delivers main learning experiences. Examples: ST Match and Dreambox Learning (is adaptive). Khan Academy (called ‘the gateway drug into blended learning’) – free resource for mastery. English language arts: Achieve 3000 (current event topics and rewrites at different lexile levels); Accelerated Reader (quizzes on books that they read based on lexile level; creates virtual book shelf). Gobstopper, lightsale – ebooks for schools; providing opportunity for teachers to embed quizzes or notes.
Teacher tools: help administration in a school to be more efficient. E.g. Edmodo used to communicate with students and parents (‘Facebook for teachers’); ‘Class Dojo’ merit and demerit points for classroom behaviour. Exit Ticket, Socrative, Poll Everywhere. Also LMS (Moodle etc…)
Learning apps: length, frequency of use very different; depended on unit and child. App: Poetry – search and display on mobile phones.
2) Process of choosing software
– What do you already have? Existing subscriptions? Start here.
– Choose based on criteria:
a) actionable data
c) efficient with the student’s time
f) cloud based option (work anywhere, using any device)
3) Additional resources
Basic ingredients for Blended Learning success (article):