Sunday, February 24, 2013

Teaching students to dig deeper

In Teaching Students to Dig Deeper: The Common Core in Action, Ben Johnson revisits a common theme- writing deepens thinking and thinking deepens memory.  I had a wonderful example of this last month with a student. I work with this student in a resource room setting, focusing mainly on reading instruction. Because I also need to address other subject areas, I introduced a reading on food chains, a topic the science teacher was covering. We spent parts of four days, about 10 minutes each day, working with this reading: day one I read the passage to him and we used a graphic organizer to identify main ideas; day two he reread the passage and we began answering a question about the impact of humans on the food chain by completing a graphic organizer; day three he again read the passage and then we completed the graphic organizer; day four he used his graphic organizer to write a paragraph to answer the question. The truly amazing part of this is that on the test a week later when asked to describe how people impact food chains, the only example he could identify is the one that we had read about, discussed and written about. He was not able to pull examples from class or homework. I know that the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) intimidate some teachers, but this one example showed me how easily I could incorporate the ELA goals into my remedial instruction. 

As Ben Johnson observes students need to know something in order to think critically (p. 25). By giving them instruction in class and textbook reading as homework, the teacher had primed my pump. Perhaps my student could not identify the meaning of the key words before we began the project, but they were terms that had been introduced. Then we read a challenging passage multiple times, thinking about how it answered a question and could be used to prove a point. By putting in the hard work of critical reading, thinking and writing, he was able to learn this material and receive his best score on a science test this year.

This text presents a variety of strategies for creating thinking in classrooms. One piece that the author repeated was the importance of creating some stress, but not too much in our students. He observes that as humans, "we love to be challenged just a bit over our capacity, but if the challenge is too hard, we become frustrated and angry, and the hormone cortisol is released, causing our hippocampus to stop all thought" (p. 24). Bad stress prevents learning and if chronic can actually damage the brain. Good stress, on the other hand, causes a release of endorphins that produce a high that enhances learning (p.122-3). I am concerned about the approach to the CCSS that involves presenting students with material that is too challenging because that is what we are told to do. Then not providing adequate scaffolding or support thus reducing the chance that learning actually occurs. We need to sharpen our professional judgment, identify where our children are and present material that will challenge our brightest as well as our most struggling students. This may mean different challenging reading passages, additional scaffolding and individual pacing of work. My concern involves how will CCSS limit differentiation because, "kids need to practice doing the test."

A strategy that I liked was what Johnson describes as critical discussion (p. 37). A problem is posed to a group that must then reach a conclusion by consensus. Role cards such as "Ask me to explain why", "Ask me to assess the pros" and "Ask me to clarify the options" prompt and guide discussion. The role cards help student groups run a discussion group without a teacher present every moment. Students who struggle to work in groups require support and such role cards provide it.

The weakness of the book is that it is written with few actual examples of the strategies in action. Teachers are required to think about their content area and how to implement the strategies without guidance. While this means it is a text appropriate for K-12 and all subject areas, many teachers will need more examples to implement strategies. In a book study, groups could brainstorm lesson ideas, implement them and debrief together, but the dense nature of this book means that it would take a long time to go through it. It will be a good shelf resource, but as the author supports, deep thinking will be required to implement the strategies recommended.

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