Friday, June 8, 2012

The Power of Sharing

Even when school dismissed May 16 for the summer, I had the best intentions to continue blogging.  Somehow the right topic kept eluding me, though, since I was not in the trenches of the classroom.  There is plenty that I am busy doing, creating, and thinking about, but the essential function of this blog is to share classroom experiences.  With that said, I want to share some experiences I have had as an adult learner that I definitely want to take into the classroom when summer break is over.  Yes, "share" is in the title, so you'll see that is the theme of today's musings.

I just returned yesterday from an overnight Louisville Writing Project work retreat.  Even though I was only able to attend one day, those 24 hours showed me what we are trying to prepare our students to do in the real world.  Whoever could attend those three days had a piece of the action and captured it on large chart paper, in notebooks, and within digital media.  The work of the Louisville Writing Project (and with it the Kentucky Writing Project and the National Writing Project) has a statewide and national presence.  These organizations work closely with the Gates Foundation to develop modules for the new Common Core standards.  They design large and small conferences and workshops to support teachers (and students) in technology, new standards, ELL, End of Course assessments, and writing.  The summer institutes for the Louisville Writing Project (16 days of 7 hours each) and the new Content Literacy (through a separate grant, 10 days of 4 hours each) have to be planned, along with the followup sessions throughout the school year.  Yes, many sheets of chart paper were used.

As I think about all the activity in the room and the conversations at meals and the laughter we shared, I know that working together made every product meaningful and purposeful.  Because I was added to the state team to meet with other module writers for the Gates Foundation, I definitely had an agenda for my stay:  feedback for my module.  But therein lies the problem...I did not know what kinds of questions to ask or what kind of feedback I needed.  When the other LWPs asked what I was looking for, I felt like one of my students who says, "I don't know. Is it good?"  How many times have I prodded my students to be specific and then I could not articulate my own questions!  So here is what they prompted me to do--share.

After sharing the main components of the module (an inquiry-based project), we had general discussions about rigor and the more important "R"s of relationships and relevance.  Our rather tangential conversation brought itself around to the task at hand.  They asked questions.  LOTS of questions.  In my notes I substituted "I" for the "you" so I could better reflect on the answers.
Why did I choose this inquiry method?
What did I personally gain?
Did I evolve?
What challenges did I have to address?
What did I want the students to gain?
What does it mean to be a stakeholder? 
What skills are being taught? (think about Marzano, Blooms, etc. and use the words synthesize, analyze...)
How could I use an anticipation guide to check on what skills the students already know?
Do the students know how to take notes? And does a module ever show us teaching this skill?

Some of their questions helped me validate that my work was headed in the right direction.  We talked about relevance; my mini tasks showed students that relevance.  Some of their questions were guides for creating a narrative for other teachers to follow but not necessarily for changes in the design of the module.  Even more important is that these questions should be the cornerstone of every unit reflection and not just this particular module. 

We seek an audience.  We want to know if we are targeting the right audience and if our ideas will be accepted.  When I led a demonstration for a small group of teachers in which they created short narratives, they were disappointed that they did not have time to share their writings.  It had been an oversight on my part because I had intended for that sharing to happen, but for whatever reason it didn't.  When one of the teachers gave that feedback shortly after the demonstration, I realized how important that component is.  We decided to share pieces of stories while we ate lunch that day, and it was a perfect addition to the meal. This same demonstration has been revised to include actual slides that say, "Group Sharing" so this same oversight does not happen when it is presented again (at another teacher meeting on Monday, in fact).

My students want an audience, too.  They love to talk.  And, yes, sometimes that talk is far removed from any goal I want to accomplish that particular day.  I have to remember, though, that I have been in those same conversations.  When the other LWPs and I spoke about relationships, relevance, and rigor in our work session, it was a discussion about cookie-cutter lessons, taking risks, what students know or don't know, principals, and policy...which had very little to do with feedback for my module.  But we cleared our heads of the cobwebs, made new connections, better acquainted ourselves with each other, and then dug into the work.  When students engage in talk, sometimes they aren't ready to ask the question, "Is it any good?" or more specifically, "What can I change about my second paragraph of my argument to make it more effective?"  They simply want to ask, "Can I share?"  

As I sit here musing and sipping my coffee from my favorite stoneware mug (engraved with LWP XXX), I must say that I am glad that there are new Speaking and Listening standards in the Common Core.  I  want my students to know how to speak, to know how to collaborate, to know how to SHARE.  These standards do more than encourage talk in the classroom.  They necessitate it.  We need to remember that they need to talk as much as we adults do.  So as you plan your lessons for next year, enlist help from Marzano, Bloom, and Medina (or better yet, sit in a session with John Antonetti), but also remember those S&L standards.  Let students share.  It's pretty powerful.