Monday, June 27, 2016

Examining Similarities and differences

The third book in the Marzano Center series Essentials for Achieving Rigor that I have read is Examining Similarities & Differences: Classroom Techniques to Help Students Deepen Their Understanding by Connie Soles West and Robert J. Marzano. This book is arranged much like the other books I have read in the series: description of the technique, lesson plan steps, common mistakes, elementary and secondary examples and non examples, evaluation of student success and scaffolds and extension activities.  It includes a conclusion with self reflection questions and a short appendix of graphic organizers. Again, the approach is a practical implementation guide rather than explore the research behind the technique explanation. The text would also be useful to organize a PLC around.

Marzano and West  continue with the idea that in order for the technique to be effective for learning content, it must be taught. In order to use this particular group of techniques, students must be somewhat familiar with the content. These are not things to have students attempt when they are just learning information. The authors do not go into using teacher provided metaphors, similes or analogies to help provide initial instruction; their approach in this text is purely in using comparisons to increase content learning from the student's end.

The six techniques that the book covers are:
  • comparing using sentence stems, summarizers and constructed responses
  • comparing using graphic organizers
  • classifying using sorting, matching and categorizing
  • classifying using graphic organizers
  • comparing by creating metaphors and similes
  • comparing by creating analogies.

Throughout the book, sentence stems are seen as a preliminary step. This is a strategy that is highly effective for students with language disabilities and non-native English speakers. For students struggling with the more complex metaphors, similes and analogies, this step could be very useful. Stems like
  • ______ and ____ are the same because ______
  • Cities are like cells because __________________
  • conjunction is to _______________ as ______________________ is to _________________
  • Hamlet is like lion king because _____ and _____ and ____, but different because ____ and ____ and ____.
are helpful in getting students going, but before they approach this, many will need to brainstorm what is critical about the things being compared and share this information in groups before they start writing.

I have used sorts a couple of different ways to work on understanding:
  • Give a list of words and categories and have kids sort them out.
  • Give a list of categories and have students pull important terms out of a reading in each area
  • Give a set of subtitles from a chapter and have students order them in a way that seems to make sense- explain why the students selected the organization they did, read the chapter and compare with the author's organizational approach and evaluate if their method would have been as effective.
  • Provide a list of vocabulary terms and have them sort them into groups of their own making.
Kids do need to have these types of activities demonstrated for them before they go off and try on their own.

One strategy that I really liked was an affinity diagram. In this approach students brainstorm ideas around a topic with each idea going on a post it note (index card, strip of paper,..). Once the ideas are generated, they are sorted into groups. This approach could be used when thinking about an essay, discussion or debate- how are Romeo and Juliet showcasing hubris? Discuss three causes of the Revolutionary War. Should kids wear uniforms to school? Is chocolate the best ice cream and how do you know? Or they could be used to review before a test- how are polygons related? Distinguish between depositional and erosional glacial impacts.  This approach reminds me of mind mapping in that you manipulate the information generated in order to organize thoughts.

An important part of all the techniques was summation at the end of the activity. It is not enough to brainstorm and complete the Venn diagram. Students need to summarize what they learned- not restate the diagram. The image below is an example from science that I used years ago when I taught earth science.

My student had to arrange the information onto the chart (sort) and then come up with a statement. This level of information helped him to differentiate between two similar things. I have also used the technique with latitude and longitude, peninsula and strait, Romeo from Romeo and Juliet and Oedipus from Oedipus Rex, and congruent and similar (math) among others. I love comparing things to help students get it better and remember it more clearly.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Recording and representing knowledge

Ria A. Schmidt and Robert J. Marzano's Essentials for Achieving Rigor Series book, Recording & Representing Knowledge: Classroom Techniques to help Students Accurately Organize and Summarize Content describes how to increase knowledge in terms of students taking notes. This book is set up in two parts:
  • Linguistic strategies: summarizing and note-taking
  • Nonlinguistic strategies: graphic organizers, pictorial notes and pictographs, dramatic enactments, and mnemonic devices.
Each technique has a dedicated chapter that explains the technique, provides a sample lesson plan format, provides an elementary and secondary example of the technique in use across a variety of subjects, explains common mistakes, a rubric for evaluating mastery of the technique and a list of scaffolding and extension ideas. The book ends with an Appendix that includes an assortment of graphic organizers that are discussed in the graphic organizer section. The writing is clear and easy to read. The book includes some self-reflection questions and could easily be used for a PLC.

Much of the book recaps previous Marzano research and writings such as this ASCD article on vocabularyThe Art and Science of Teaching and Building Academic Vocabulary. If you are familiar with his research, this book will have a strikingly resonance. If you are not versed in his research and writings, he explains strategies and is light on deep research, so the material is very approachable.

A couple of critical elements leaped out at me as I read. First was his insistence on teaching the technique to ensure that students comprehend what is involved, why things are being done and all the steps required to complete the task. All too often, when it comes to recording information, we assume kids can do it and we ignore this step. Having students experience the challenge of selecting the best graphic organizer to use with the information is essential to their eventual independent use of the tool. Explaining types of mnemonic devices and how to develop useful ones is a critical step to being able to do it on one's own.

A second thing that he reiterated repeatedly was that students should not record information during the initial presentation. They should have processing time first. My brother, a university professor, talks about being able to either record what someone is saying or listening and processing what is being said. I do not think this is too different from what many people experience. Given a choice, I would far rather have my students listen and process than write it down. In practice this means presenting information- print, image, or verbal form- and then letting students process small chunks to find the key ideas. This requires a shift in how we think about taking notes- copy everything the teacher writes down or transcribe everything that he says- is not effective for learning. Notes need to be personal and relevant to the processing. More frequent breaks to record instead of recording while we work becomes the goal.

Third, a note about dramatic enactment. I worked with a teacher who had his students act out scenes from history. Typically a group of 6-8 kids to a group would draft a script (i.e. a lead student would draft the skit). Then kids would act it out. Points were given for props and dramatic vision. Once the activity was over students were given the unit test. These activities disturbed me because I could see that many students were not learning the material, but I could not articulate the problem clearly. Having read this book, I can. First, groups were not collaborative in the creative cycle. A leader did all the thinking with one or two inputs from others. A Reader's Theater approach might have been more useful because then students could have dived straight into the simulation rather than wait around for others to process the information for them. Deciding how to read a script would have had more use than the "bang with sticks" I saw in one skit.  Second, there was no summarization of the learning. After the enactment, writing or talking about what they learned from the activity would have helped the activity be cemented into memory. Third, the heavy emphasis on props took away from the emphasis on the events being depicted. Drama can be very useful for kids, but it has to be well-thought out and include a wrap up processing activity.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

note-taking as an instructional technique

Lectures have a bad rap. Anyone who has ever sat through a three hour class lecture knows that at least some of it is deserved. So why do teachers and professors still do it? Because lecture is a highly efficient way of delivering large amounts of information. That being said, how do we optimize lectures so that students derive benefit from them? Silver and Perini wrote The Interactive Lecture as a PLC guide to help teachers tackle this task. Similarly, Ria A. Schmidt and Robert J. Marzano look at note-taking in their Essentials for Achieving Rigor Series book, Recording & Representing Knowledge: Classroom Techniques to help Students Accurately Organize and Summarize Content.

According to Schmidt and Marzano, teaching note-taking is essential. Think how many times teachers have complained that students can't take notes. Then think how we do not teach note-taking. It all makes sense. The authors propose four steps to developing note-taking:
  1. Teach the method from the beginning of the year.
  2. Consistently used the method on a daily basis
  3. Provide feedback to students on note-taking
  4. Allow notes to be formative assessment- after looking at them alter instruction to meet the needs of students- scaffold or extend as necessary for SPECIFIC students.
While the authors do not support the use of one note-taking technique over another, they emphasize teach and practice the technique repeatedly. When I was in college I had a professor who taught a class on teaching ELA and social studies. He was adamant that we learn how to create mind maps of material. At least once a week an assignment included creating a web. At first I hated it. It was foreign and hard. He collected and graded the notes we made with these webs. As time went by I became more comfortable with the webs. Ultimately I used webs to "outline" every paper I wrote in graduate school. Many students never latched on to the webs or preferred more traditional outlines or Cornell notes or some other method for recording information. The only way we were able to make a choice, however, was by being forced to learn different methods. It is ok if each teacher requires a different technique. We are building choices for our students and teaching flexibility in learning.

A couple of key features characterize effective note-taking:
  • Students must summarize and prioritize ideas and information- NOT all the information is recorded
  • Processing time is provided prior to notes being taken
  • Note-taking does not occur during presentation of new information
  • Often peers are given the chance to talk through some of the information to help with processing and prioritizing.
  • Students are not expected to copy from the board.
This structure is very different from the note-taking we typically see in classrooms. A common classroom modification for students with disabilities is copy of classroom notes will be provided. This is helpful if the expectation is copying notes. Unfortunately, processing of information during note-taking is not a common occurrence.  Although the authors do not comment about the challenges many students with disabilities have with note-taking, many of their suggestions for note-taking eliminated the requirements for multitasking, copying from the board, and spelling.

Since several pieces of research (see here, here, here and here) verify that pencil notes are more helpful in increasing knowledge in students than notes taken on computers, we need to be very wary of students using electronics during lectures. The authors only highlight paper note-taking procedures. They do not, however, comment about trends toward audio-recording or live-scribing technologies that are sometimes used for note-taking.

A lesson might look something like this:
  • Teacher presents new information for five to fifteen minutes. (The older the student, the more experienced with note-taking, and the more familiar the student is with the information, the longer the chunk of information can be.) No writing should take place.
  • The teacher asks students to spend a few minutes recording key ideas and details from the lecture.
  • Students are asked to pair-share for a couple of minutes to discuss their thoughts.
  • Students receive another couple of minutes to refine their notes.
  • (If still teaching the process or if a check for understanding is desirable- a few students are asked to share and defend their notes followed by another couple of minutes to refine notes)
  • Repeat.
  • Toward the end of a section of information or a period, nonlinguistic representations of the information and/or summary statements of the day's information are requested to be written.

True, a teacher might not cover quite as much information, but with this sort of approach, much more learning is likely to take place reducing the need for review at another time.

The authors suggest scaffolding such as student friendly definitions and examples of note-taking techniques be provided and templates or fill-in-the-blank notes for students to complete be available. Templates or skeletal notes could certainly be useful for students. I am not so sure that providing definitions of the techniques would be so helpful. If you are teaching the format you want students to practice, you should have done this already. Using more pair-share opportunities and nonlinguistic representations would be a good idea. Additional wait time might help, but in a whole class presentation, this could be difficult to implement. Encouraging preview material through short podcasts or video or key vocabulary review at home or in a resource room might allow the additional processing time some students need to be successful. Providing cut up possible notes that students select and prioritize and then glue/tape into notes might help with students with spelling, handwriting, or language issues. For students with memory problems, pictures highlighting key ideas might be used to trigger memory. Students could even just take "notes" with images. Color coding could be a useful scaffold for students who struggle with note-taking. If notes are being made on reading material, readings with a lower reading level could be utilized.

Suggested extension ideas include student prioritization of information, rewriting definitions in your own words and researching a big idea. Since prioritizing big ideas is part of the technique, I do not see how that becomes an extension idea. If students are not copying from the board, they either have fantastic memories and can write definitions verbatim or they are writing definitions in their own words. Researching a big idea is an extension of the content area and is useful but is unrelated to learning the technique of note-taking. I might have students try and make connections to other classes, past experiences, real life experiences and record them in their notes to share with others. Another extension idea for students who easily comprehend the reading that you want students to take notes on is to provide more challenging reading material. The internet provides a wealth of material at different reading levels; college level texts could even be used for some students. NewsELAReading A-Z and Breaking News English are websites that have readings about the same topic written at different reading levels.

A technique that could either take the learning to a more basic or a more complex level would be a parallel teaching form of co-teaching where one teacher presents the lesson content to one part of the class and the other teacher presents either a more basic or more complex version to a smaller part of the class. If another staff member is not available, a web video could be utilized. Students could then come together in a whole group for the summarization phase of the lesson. Or a jigsaw approach could be made where students could share their notes from a section of the learning with others from the class who learned about a related but different aspect of the material.