Thursday, March 3, 2016

Best Student Response Ever

Ever wonder if your students are learning enough? And if their learning is relevant? Helpful to their lives?
Yep, me, too.
All the time.

A major goal within our class is to ensure that students are speaking academically every day. In reflection, though, I'd realized pretty quickly that extended discourse honestly didn't happen consistently or in any organized manner. I needed to change that if my students were going to become the confident, "think-on-their-feet" learners I envisioned them to be.  Here's how I approached it today, the gist of how it all went down.

Today, our mixed-level class (from newcomers who have been here 3 days, to learners who have been here 3 years)  tried new learning strategies, hybrids all. Just like those of us using them.

We began with a pre-writing activity that served as a review of the biographies they've been reading. Snagged from LiteracyTA's idea for gamifying writing fluency, we tweaked one of their activities (1 page, 3 paragraphs, 10 minutes) to "1 x 3 x 15":
1 paragraph
3 facts
15 minutes

This helped students reflect on their learning, write without support, and extract key ideas and details from memory in a challenging amount of time. Lots of opportunity for formative assessment.
They then had 6 minutes to formulate 2 questions for other groups since each group had studied different people.

Those who finished these tasks well ahead of everyone were asked to jot down a couple of interesting facts they could use during the discussion to enhance their responses.

The discussion rules were simple: 

  • No adults would be engaged in the discussion. 
  • Notes were absolutely encouraged. 
  • Talk to each other; pretend no adults are in the room. 

The set-up:

  • Students sat with their collaborative groups. (5 groups of 3-4 students each; each group had studied one particular "Rabble Rouser", but none had shared more than a sentence or two about their person with the other groups)
  • One student sat in a "hot seat", with the rest of his/ her team behind them. 
  • Students in the hot seat asked each other questions they had written, and responded accordingly. 
  • Notes and text were encouraged to enhance responses AND add detail if desired. 
  • Language support was provided by teammates, as students rotated through the hot seat. 

What I witnessed blew me away.
I saw students hesitate to begin. Look at their papers. Shuffle their feet. Look out of the corners of their eyes...
Then one boy began with a question.
Sure, sentences were stilted, but blossoming. We listened to their grammar, their evidence from their reading, their questions, their responses...

But then, there were the unintended results.
I was witnessing that this classroom had become a space where students felt safe, despite the fact that speaking out loud, and in academic settings, is so very hard for them. Our classroom had become a space of encouragement, turn-taking, and support for each other, without a single word from adults. Our students knew how to honor each other's efforts, when to praise, and when to remain patient as newcomers sounded out their sentences one word at a time. Our students gently prodded each other to "please repeat that" when a response was whispered. I saw students turning to each other and asking for evidence in the text, "where to find ___".  I witnessed smiles borne from new-found confidence after some participated in this type of conversation for the first time! I saw sweaty palms being wiped on pants after speaking, but also during--which meant they were nervous, but still they kept on.

In essence, what I witnessed was the integration of social skills with academic content, and it made my heart full.

Sure--my dear readers, you know me well--there are many things I'd like to add, change, and build upon the next time we do this. But the best feedback for me today was the students' response:

I'd say questions of "Can we do this again tomorrow?" pretty well summed it up.

(fist pump ensued, once students walked out, FYI)

For those of you interested in using more intentional conversation in your classroom--which you definitely should!--then this article by Jennifer Gonzalez at the Cult of Pedagogy (one of my FAVORITE resource sites, btw) is the perfect place to start. You can try one discussion strategy or try them all, or you can do like we did, and create your own hybrid from a couple of them.

We would love to know about your discussion strategies, AND we are always looking for other classrooms to connect with, so we can practice conversations with other students! Please drop us a note or comment below. We'd love to hear from you.

PS--I think this might be my first post without pictures. I just didn't want to "ruin" the flow today, plus I was videotaping parts of it--and the students had forgotten I was there! (bonus)

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