Thursday, September 19, 2013

Right answer, Wrong idea

This little story should help you understand the value of asking more probing critical thinking questions in a lesson when you are hoping to understand more about how much students are really understanding the content you are presenting. 

The most notable part of the story is that my principal was observing the lesson, so we got a (neat?) opportunity to share in my reflection of this experience. 

Some background is that I am a 5th AND 6th grade social studies teacher and have many repeat customers in my classes. The 5th grade curriculum is world geography, the 6th ancient civilizations.

We can't cover every bit of the world in grade 5 so we focus on different regions as current events allow good connections. Last year I did focus on India and its neighbors but did not get to cover Southeast Asia in depth.

So when I was playing an interactive online review game with my 6th graders to help see how much geography they did remember from last year, when we got to this question. 

Which of the following countries does not border the Bay of Bengal ?

A. Myanmar

B. India
D. Bangladesh

I knew they would probably struggle. I hoped they would group together India and Bangladesh as neighbors and realize it couldn't be either of those that wouldn't border the bay. I wasn't sure they would know which side of the peninsula Myanmar and Vietnam would be on to border Bay of Bengal, but I hoped they might associate the culture of Myanmar (if they had any knowledge of it) closer to the India group...

So when the student who volunteered answered "Vietnam" I was pleasantly surprised. I said "Great! Tell me about what you were thinking as you tried to figure that out...."

He said .. "well, Vietnam is a war , not a country, so I know that couldn't be the answer."

Hmm.. me: "You have a point, many wars we know, like Revolutionary War, Civil War, World War II, have names that are NOT countries so I can see your logic... BUT some wars do have names of countries like the Korean War, and the Vietnam War.. so it IS a still have the right answer but let's try to figure out a different way we could explain why it is correct.

Student number 2 : I knew it was Vietnam, because Vietnam is landlocked so it couldn’t be near a Bay….(well good, they do remember the definition of landlocked and can apply it to ruling out answers in this question… except Vietnam is not actually landlocked) Good try…. Landlocked would work as a reason, but not for Vietnam… Anyone else ? I reluctantly ask…

Student 3 my final hope to avoid complete embarrassment in front of principal….

India, Myanmar and Bangladesh are all in a similar region, (good!, good! I am thinking) But Vietnam is in South…….. (excellent!) …… America …. (ughhh Nooooo! .. In my head of course)

As I was virtually picking my head off up the desk with my limp arms flailing (all the while maintaining my positive smile and good posture in real life) Student 3 redeemed himself by saying …. Wait I was thinking of Venezuela in South America, .. Vietnam is somewhere near Indonesia and China…( YES!!!!!)

So,  from one simple question I learned 7 or 8 concepts that they knew and/or didn’t understand. But I only know that because I asked “why”, otherwise I just would have thought they had the right answer and the right idea.

Fortunately my principal also sees the value in this formative assessment in the form of critical questioning.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

THAT student

The first week is complete. We've met all the shiny new faces. Most students are ready to learn, understand how to behave appropriately and will make this year another great opportunity to grow for everyone around them.

But we all know who THAT student is. The one who hasn't been quiet yet. Who has many silly questions. Who is trying his or her best to distract everyone within arm's length.

A long time ago a wise parent shared something with me that changed my perspective. It was a great compliment. Her very quiet child came home from his first day of 5th grade and shared with her his surprise that I had been fair, quiet, and kind with THAT student that year. It was remarkable because a natural teaching reaction is to "Show them who is in control" early, to avoid undesirable behavior later.

The truth is.. I don't believe I am .. " In Control" of their learning. THEY ARE. As much as I would like to believe all learning begins and ends with me as a fountain of information, the truth is, all learning takes place if everyone feels safe enough to take risks and interact with each other. And the quiet kids are watching you like hawks to find out your tone with anyone who tries to cross any lines. In their minds.. speaking is such a risk they would never ever risk reprimand or ridicule. 

Making the "testing" students feel respected takes a huge responsibility off of the hard work they are doing to make themselves noticed. I will notice them, and pay attention to them, without the elaborate show. It balances out in my room pretty quickly, the quieter ones become louder and the louder ones become quieter until there is a nice hum of learning.

It takes some work to establish a classroom climate. It is all about teacher reactions and tone setting in the first few weeks. I don't want it to be a battleground for a control, but a common ground for learning. Invariably I learn  just as much as they do throughout the year.

So if you are a teacher, especially a new one, and you find yourself in battle, try to remember you are all really on the same side. Some students cry out for attention because they legitimately need you. I know in middle school it doesn't present that way. But trust me, a smile and a bit of encouragement goes so much further than a glare and a threat.

Just a thought as we all take a breath after our week's worth of challenges :)