Saturday, September 29, 2012

Engaged in Evidence Gathering

My students love post-it notes.  I buy or find ways to procure the square 2"x2" ones.  A smaller size would probably work better for most classroom activities but cutting the notes in half works just as well (making sure, of course, that each half has some stickiness).  I've had to beg, borrow, and steal sticky notes after the last activity my students did, which shows, perhaps, how adding a little novelty can keep students engaged in something as simple as gathering evidence.

After reading Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman and an article on community gardens, my students prepared themselves to navigate "Antaeus" by Borden Deal.  We briefly discussed the mythological connections to the title of the story.  If Antaeus, the giant, maintained his strength by touching the earth, why then is his name used in the title of this story?  What allusions can be found about earth creating power in the individuals or in the gang?  We also discussed vocabulary.  What if the definition were not conveniently located at the bottom of the page?  Whatever could we do to decipher the meaning of the word, the sentence, or the passage?  Therefore, context clues became our second focus for the activity.  Interestingly enough, many vocabulary words the students documented could also be used for as allusions to earth and power.

With two levels of focus in mind, students equipped themselves with the textbook, a stack of sticky notes, and their small groups of three.  Their goal was to tag the textbook with the sticky note when they found a piece of evidence that could answer either the allusion or vocabulary question.  They needed to make notes on the post-it about their thinking and what prompted them to tag that passage, sentence, or word.

What proceeded for the remainder of the class period were engaged discussions about the text.  Students who do not normally speak, much less read aloud, were voicing opinions or writing on sticky notes.  Members within each group took turns reading aloud, creating the potential for a roomful of groups to sound cacophonous.  Instead, the reading, digging for evidence, asking questions, and documenting thinking generated an electric hum that felt rather energizing.  My advice would be to not shy away from small groups reading aloud, even in a small classroom.  When given a specific focus and a stack of sticky notes, even the students who are normally the least engaged will rise to the challenges set before them.  One caveat: I did assign students rather randomly in some classes but very purposefully in others.  I asked a few students to do this activity alone and receive assistance from me rather than from their peers--not a decision I take lightly because I believe Vygotsky had something when he wrote about the social component of learning.  But I also believe that students should have a positive group learning experience, which sometimes does not happen if not everyone in a group has the same goals.  A few students asked to read and work independently, and I reluctantly allowed that option.

There may be a few disadvantages to having only a class set of literature textbooks, but I haven't really discovered many.  First of all, we don't use them as readers in the classroom.  My department selects various stories, some from an older, beloved literature book, a few from our newer one, and many complementary materials from our own searches.  Secondly, this activity would not have been nearly as effective if the students each had his or her own book.  You see, the final step of the evidence-gathering process was to remove the sticky notes from their books and place them on a piece of notebook paper.  Before removing the note, the group members needed to check their notes for completeness (page numbers, quotations, etc.).  As class ended, I collected the sticky note-laden papers.

The next day, when I returned the papers to the groups, I asked them to look at what they collected.  We began to discuss allusion by only referring to the evidence on the sticky notes.  It was difficult.  Regardless how much the students remembered about the story, most of them had very little actual evidence.  Writing a vocabulary word, the word "allusion," and page 472 did little to help them articulate why it was a piece of evidence.  When they set out to "clean up" their digging, students pulled quotations from the text and linked them to the power of the earth.  They identified the context clues around the vocabulary words.  They documented the page numbers.  They wiped me out of post-it notes--even when the notebook paper would have worked just fine for day two.  I am eager to try this activity again, but they may not let me get away with not using sticky I will be borrowing that Office Depot catalog soon.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Specific Feedback

As I look at the date, I am astonished that so much time has passed since reflecting on my classroom in writing.  Perhaps there could be the question of whether I do reflect on my classroom practices, and the answer would be a resounding "Yes."  Unfortunately, it is the writing (not the reflection) that has been under the knife and nearly cut from the slim budget of time that the school year has provided me.  In the time since school started this year, there have been a number of ideas and projects that deserve attention in this space--NWP/Gates foundation/LDC professional development work, literacy theory in my graduate class, new course designs, and new course assignments. There is one concept, though, that I want to focus on today: specific feedback.

My students are finalizing their literacy story drafts.  This assignment has been challenging in oh so many ways.  Instead of narratives about their favorite waterpark or the death of a beloved pet or even memoirs about their aunts and uncles serving overseas, they are writing about their journey with literacy.  Essentially, if they did write about a favorite book or hobby, they needed to include how that book or hobby has shaped their reading and writing.  Sigh.  Perhaps a simple letter telling me what they like and dislike about reading and writing would have been easier...much easier.  But we are trekking up this mountain, and we will plant a flag somewhere at the top.

As with other writing assignments I have mentioned, I included mini-lessons on transitions and on creating leads.  Writing leads can be interesting because, as I tell my students, often the best introductory paragraph is the one you just wrote as the conclusion; so we have most of the draft completed before I venture into a mini lesson on leads.  I found a variety of books on my bookshelf to help me show the students what different leads might look like:
Dialogue--Charlotte's Web
Flashback--The Young Man and the Sea
Action--Any Matt Christopher sports book
Snapshot--Leviathon; Dust City
After reading a paragraph or two of the book, I asked my students to focus on their literacy story idea and try writing their own leads.  A timer seems to add urgency to the task.  Many students were surprised when, after the four or five attempts, they had filled a page or two or three in their composition notebooks.  It was really amazing when one student found that he had a pretty incredible introductory paragraph after he combined two of his leads together.

It wasn't difficult up to this point to give casual, verbal feedback when students were asking questions about their topics, transitions, or leads.  When it was time for some initial written feedback, however, I knew that time would be a crippling factor.  The media center specialist had arranged for my classes to listen to book talks on the books nominated for the Bluegrass book awards, releasing me from my teaching duties; so that was going to be my time frame for responding to their stories.  After attendance, gathering notebooks, settling in a corner of the library, and preparing post its, only about 50 minutes (or less) would remain in the class period to respond to between 21-28 notebooks depending on the class period.  When I explained this to my students the day before we went to the library, they understood the issue of time and how difficult reading a whole rough draft would be.  Many students also had sentence practices and notes interspersed with their drafts and had already made a number of revisions.  It might be difficult to just find all the pieces much less read and respond.

We then talked about the type of feedback they were looking for.  A question such as "Is this good?" would be extremely difficult to answer for a number of reasons: again, the draft is in a very messy stage and may not be easily found or understood; and time constraints would limit the opportunity to discuss the variances of "good."  On the other hand, if a student asked me, "Does my lead draw you into my story?" or "Do I have enough details about my literacy in this paragraph?" I could probably respond fairly quickly.  Students drew a box around a troubling piece of their writing, a section with which they wanted or needed the most help.  Then, on the post it note I gave them, they wrote a specific question they wanted me to answer.  With the post it acting as a tab, I could quickly flip to the correct page.  Before moving on to another notebook, I moved the post it so that my feedback could fit alongside it for a snapshot, which I then uploaded to Evernote into the student's note that I had created at the beginning of the year.  With the new writing program reviews and the fact that my sticky notes are not very sticky, I felt that documentation would be helpful for all of us.

I did not have time to respond to every notebook in that short time period, but I came very close--even with adding the picture-taking time.  The remainder were completed during planning time, and I was able to quickly assess who had not turned in a notebook or had not written a question on a post it.  The students also learned the skill of being specific when asking for feedback.  And post it notes are fun.  In fact, next time I'll discuss another activity in which I used sticky notes for gathering evidence.  Unfortunately, these activities have depleted my supply of sticky notes.  I'm not sure there is one left to use as a reminder note to buy more.  That's just another day in the life at the SPMS Literacy Workshop.