“When it comes to fostering cognitive perseverance, carrots and sticks don’t work,” writes Rick Wormeli in the September issue of ASCD’s Educational Leadership. Access his article, “Motivating Young Adolescents,” for six effective motivational approaches (as well as the “Top 12 Demotivators”).
We are starting — or rather, re-starting — an occasional web series with author Herb Broda, whose books Schoolyard-Enhanced Learning and Moving the Classroom Outdoors encourage teachers to take advantage of the natural surroundings around their schools, whether it’s a concrete slab parking lot, or woods and a stream. “The schoolyard can provide a powerful change of pace and place for enhancing instruction,” he says. In this series Herb will share activities that can be taken directly into — or out of — the classroom and engage students across the content areas. For this first activity, all you need is a leaf and a piece of paper.
The Tale of the Tape
Process skills cut across content lines and are important in most all fields of study. For example, being able to analyze data, information, or situations is just as important in social studies as it is in science, mathematics, or literature. Likewise, observing, describing, classifying, organizing, inferring, predicting, and evaluating have universal application. Process skills can be taught either indoors or out. However, by occasionally going outside to focus on cross-disciplinary skills such as observing and describing, we can add welcome variety to instruction.
Here is an activity that focuses on two process skills that are integral to developing writers and critical thinkers: observing and describing. Although I have used this activity successfully both inside and outside, it has maximum impact when done outside. There is something about nature that seems to pull at all the senses and heighten creativity.
What you will need: masking tape, leaves or other natural objects, and a roll of adding machine tape. Students use a two or three foot strip of adding machine tape to record a long list of words or phrases that describe the leaf. This unusual writing surface works well to foster creative thinking.
Each student is given a strip of the paper, a leaf (all of which come from the same bush or tree), and a piece of masking tape. Students tape the leaf to the top of the strip and write as many words or phrases as possible that describe something about the leaf. Encourage them to fill the tape with descriptive words! Allow enough time for the “furrowed brow” to develop. The first ten or twelve items are usually pretty easy to do-it’s the next ten or fifteen that really force close observation and creative thinking. Let students remove the leaf from the paper to get a better look.
When you see that most have exhausted their word banks, ask a volunteer to read his or her list very slowly. As the list is read, students should check off items that are the same or very similar to what they have written. You can also have one student keep a master list of all the words that are generated. As others read the items that they still have unmarked, continue to add to the master list.
Depending on your objective and the age of the students, your follow-up discussion can take a variety of turns. You can simply emphasize that there are many words that can be used to describe a simple object. For a class of twenty, you will probably come up with more than one hundred different descriptive words. It’s a valuable learning experience for kids just to see that people can look at the same object and see many different things. It’s also interesting to have students look at their lists and see if they can find any patterns. Often, you can quickly tell who has the scientific bent in the group (lobed, chlorophyll, food factory), or the artistic (emerald green, symmetrical) or the tactile (rough, soft, fuzzy). Kids quickly see that the mind gets in one track for awhile and generates descriptors all of one type. When that well goes dry, the brain dips into another source.
This activity is a great way to emphasize the power of careful observation-a critical skill in any content area. Teachers use this activity very successfully as a motivator or introduction to the study of adjectives and descriptive writing. It’s a good one to use prior to any activity that demands rich description or careful observation. Not much adaptation is needed for varying grade levels. Of course, higher grade levels will generate more complex and varied descriptive words or phrases. At upper grade levels, the activity can serve as an entry into a topic (e.g., use stones instead of leaves as an introduction to a geology unit). I know some high school science teachers who use it prior to a study of plants.
Teachers have used many items for this activity. Stones, twigs, leaves, and even kernels of corn have been taped to the paper strips. It’s most effective to use natural materials that come from the same source (like twigs from the same tree, or corn kernels from the same ear). The power of this activity emerges when students realize that a wide diversity of observations can be generated from looking at very similar objects.
Step outside and try the Tale of the Tape. Treat yourself and your students to a change of pace and place!
What do you do when you “lose” your students? How can you become more attuned to their needs and respond in ways that improve your classroom mood, increase harmony, and lead to more productive learning?
The revised and expanded edition of the popular book 3‑Minute Motivators has 200 simple, fun activities for any grade that will help you use “a little magic” to take a quick break, engage students, and refocus them on the task at hand. 150 of the activities are new to this edition, which is conveniently organized into sections for “At your Desks,” “Up and At ‘Em,” and “Let’s Communicate,” and includes a handy subject-area index.
Our series of case studies about effective PD initiatives using Stenhouse books continues today with a visit to Brophy Elementary School in Framingham, Mass. Stenhouse editor Holly Holland shares how teachers there used strategies found in the book Academic Conversations to improve their students’ oral language skills in ways that reach beyond the school walls.
Two years ago, when the data team at Brophy Elementary School in Framingham, Massachusetts, began searching for ways to improve students’ oral language skills, some members suggested a great resource—Academic Conversations: Classroom Talk That Fosters Critical Thinking and Content Understandings (Stenhouse, 2011). Jeff Zwiers and Marie Crawford’s book identifies five core communication skills to help students hold productive academic conversations across the content areas: elaborating and clarifying, supporting ideas with evidence, building on and/or challenging ideas, paraphrasing, and synthesizing.
“It’s really a rich approach, making sure students have complex language skills at all levels,” says Sara Hamerla, English language learner (ELL) coach for eight elementary schools in Framingham.
In recent years the percentage of students with limited English proficiency has accelerated at Brophy. Today, more than 60 percent of students are non-native speakers.
Although ELL students needed the most support with oral language, Brophy’s data team realized that strengthening classroom discourse could help all children. By having focused academic conversations, students expand their vocabulary knowledge, learn how to transfer skills from one subject to another, and develop stamina for reading and writing.
“Oral language is a cornerstone on which we build our literacy and learning throughout life. Unfortunately, oral language is rarely taught in depth after third grade,” Zwiers and Crawford write in Academic Conversations. “In many classrooms, talking activities are used in limited ways, often just to check learning of facts and procedures rather than to teach or deepen understandings.”
By practicing strategies such as think-pair-share and answering with memorized sentence stems, students can learn to ask insightful questions, negotiate meaning, and critically evaluate evidence. They can also learn to keep track of what they are hearing, describe a speaker’s points in their own words, and elaborate on ideas.
“Take a look at a typical standards list and highlight the verbs that ask students to do something,” the authors suggest. “You might see terms such as evaluate, distinguish, outline, summarizes, analyze, and hypothesize. Most of these are actually thinking skills that are often best developed in conversation. Moreover, some of these skills need to be developed in conversation, and if we remove this avenue, we weaken students’ chances for academic success.”
With the needs of their students in mind, the Brophy data team members read Academic Conversations and then decided to introduce the recommended skills to the faculty over time so they could get familiar with the approach without feeling overwhelmed. Brophy principal Frank Rothwell encouraged implementation of the Academic Conversations strategies as a schoolwide initiative.
In addition to the recommended skills, the Brophy team introduced another oral language skill—active listening—because they realized that many students did not know how to participate in both ends of a conversation.
“The idea is that we wanted to explicitly teach students how to be active listeners instead of just passive recipients of information,” says Judy Flynn, a Brophy teacher who works with English language learners. “For example, they could show they were listening by nodding their heads or making eye contact or saying ‘Hmm’ or ‘Oh, really?’ It seems silly at first, but we take for granted that students know how to do this.”
Brophy’s data team also modified the order of the core conversational skills to better align with students’ developmental paths. They started by modeling good academic conversations, explaining why they are important, and using anchor charts to identify important concepts such as staying on topic and taking turns talking and listening. Then they moved on to active listening, paraphrasing/retelling, elaborating, supporting ideas with examples, and finally synthesizing.
“It has changed our teaching dramatically,” Flynn says. “Instead of being teacher directed, we have switched to being student directed. The teacher is responsible for creating a rich prompt, and then the students do all the work. They’re having a conversation with each other, back and forth, challenging each other, building on what each other has said, using evidence from the text they’re working on or have connected to prior learning. The likelihood that a classroom will be silent is very small. You would absolutely see either pairs or trios of students having a dialogue about the topic.”
Flynn and Hamerla developed sample lesson plans to guide teachers and a conversational analysis protocol to help them listen to the language their students are producing. Teachers use the protocol to plan interventions and subsequent lessons, depending on students’ needs. Many have also accepted Hamerla’s offer to plan lessons together and coteach until they gain confidence in the procedures.
After a successful first year using Academic Conversations at Brophy, Flynn and Hamerla decided to share the techniques with teachers throughout the school district. They developed a two-credit graduate course through Framingham State University, with Academic Conversations as the “cornerstone.” Hosting the course after school hours at Brophy, they have attracted teachers from a wide range of disciplines.
“It was very exciting because not only were teachers from the core academic areas interested, but we also had a PE teacher, a school social worker, and an art teacher participating in the first course,” Hamerla says. “We found it was really pertinent across all areas. The PE teacher was so excited because with the new emphasis on the Common Core State Standards, we all need to be on board and even specialist teachers are contributing to literacy learning. This is a way they can be involved. It’s been really exciting to see how those academic conversations have been applied in different settings.”
Analyzing the Discourse
Last school year, Hamerla obtained consent from parents to research the progress of students at Brophy. She videotaped their classroom conversations once a month and then transcribed and analyzed them. She says she noted big improvements in the quality of their dialogues. For example, students were better able to use “cohesion devices,” which are transitions that link ideas in academic discourse. Common cohesion devices in school include likewise to compare, conversely to contrast, consequently to express cause and effect, and furthermore to add ideas and evidence. Zwiers and Crawford suggest many ways to help students practice cohesion devices, such as a pro-con activity in which one partner assumes the role of the “director” who names the topic and announces the “pro” or “con” side, which prompts the partner (the “speaker”) to think of related points to express.
Other observations showed Hamerla that the students’ academic conversations needed more refinement. Teachers began sharing and practicing “talk moves” to help students understand how to extend a conversation. For example, they might respond to and clarify a peer’s statement by adding “So what you’re saying is . . . ” or “Something else that goes along with this is . . . ”
“At the beginning of my study I noticed that students were unable to synthesize their conversations,” Hamerla says. “At the end they would just stop talking and be like, ‘We’re done.’ We taught them to synthesize and complete the conversation with a conclusion and some sort of agreement: ‘So in conclusion, we both believe. . . ,’ or, ‘Based on our conversation we can decide that . . . ’ It was the sentence starters we provided that really taught them to take this to the next level.”
Students have become so proficient at using the skills that they frequently ask to use them throughout the school day—for example, by holding academic conversations about the characters in fiction they are reading. To extend their fluency, Assistant Principal Sara Cummins introduced Topic Tuesdays. On those days, students are asked to have an academic conversation about the chosen theme with whomever they sit with at lunch. Teachers provide scaffolding for English language learners, such as providing word banks and sentence frames that the children can use and refer to during conversations.
Reaching Beyond the Classroom
To help families understand the changes happening in their children’s classrooms, Brophy’s teacher leaders have hosted meetings with the parent-teacher organization and with parents of bilingual students. Staff members also send home examples of sentence starters that parents can use to extend conversations and encourage their children to elaborate. If a child offers a limited response to the standard question, “How was school today?” the parent could say, “I’d like you to add on to that because your teacher told me you were working on . . . ” Or if someone in the family makes a statement, parents could ask another child to expand on it by saying, “I agree/disagree because . . . ,” or, “An example of this is . . . ”
“Parents are really excited and are thankful for concrete strategies they can do at home,” Flynn says.
Hamerla, Flynn, and their colleagues have continued to refine their adaptation of Academic Conversations every year. This past school year they conducted a schoolwide survey of teachers to measure reported changes in teaching and learning. The data team members also conducted a learning walkthrough where they moved in and out of classrooms and asked students to articulate their thinking and reasoning using multiple means of expression.
Teachers have reported good progress in students’ oral language skills, particularly for those who have been practicing the Academic Conversations techniques for two years. But they also mention the need for more instructional coaching to help them know how to continue refining students’ skills.
“Academic Conversations has been a portal” to greater language development, one teacher says. “Young students in first and second grade have developed listening and speaking skills faster because they were explicitly taught. We need constant coaching to maintain our stamina as teachers and perpetuate this amazing lifelong learning approach!”
“My students very much enjoy academic conversations but still have difficulty with some of the more advanced skills,” says a kindergarten teacher. “Some of them are still struggling with just social conversations. So we will get there . . . just not quite yet.”
Hamerla and Flynn say they are most eager to see how well the children carry their skills to middle school, high school, and beyond.
“I can’t wait to hear what they do when they interview for jobs in the future,” Flynn says. “Our students are being trained as great conversationalists who can share their thinking and contribute to the dialogue.”
Matt Copeland, author of Socratic Circles, launched a Facebook discussion and collaboration page about a year ago. Today he discusses why teachers need collaboration and discussion and how his online community helps to facilitate the process.
Collaboration. It’s the one thing we educators never seem to get enough time to do.
Very early in my teaching career, a more seasoned colleague shared with me his lamentation on the profession: As teachers, we are the eggs; the school is our egg carton. Each of us is separated off into our own little protective compartment—our classroom—never touching, never interacting, never discussing.
“Remodeling Literacy Learning: Making Room for What Works,” a report from the National Center for Literacy Education, appears to suggest that little has changed in the last twenty years in that regard. According to its findings, only 40% of educators have the opportunity to co-plan with colleagues more than once a month. And yet, co-planning is the one professional learning experience survey respondents value the most. In fact, a majority of educators have less than one hour per week to work with other members of their learning teams. (A one-page infographic summarizing the report’s findings is also available.)
In a fascinating article from Vox, Elizabeth Green, who spent five years researching the complexities of becoming an exceptional educator, offered the following nugget of insight:
We don’t give teachers the space to do anything but work, work, work. They have no space to learn. Whereas in Japan or Finland there are 600 hours per year of time spent teaching, in the US, it’s 1,000 hours or more. So teachers have no time to think, no time to learn, no time to study the kids, no time to study the curriculum. They have no way of seeing anything that’s happening outside their own classroom.
For a profession firmly focused on developing a love of lifelong learning, this reality may seem counterintuitive. The good news, as the NCLE report also states, is that many of the building blocks to begin to rectify this problem may already be in place: educator teams, online professional networks, smart use of student data, and—perhaps most important—instructional coaches and school librarians.
For those educators interested in empowering student-led discussion in their classrooms, one such online professional network already exists: the Socratic Circles Community on Facebook. Here, practitioners of the strategy share insight and advice with one another and learn from the classroom experiences and expertise of others. We share potential sources of text, troubleshoot common pitfalls, and offer one another the kind of support and collaboration that is too often missing from our lives during the school day.
Changing the climate and culture of our schools to embrace collaboration may seem a daunting task. Yet, as classroom teachers, we must be that change. Now, as we begin a new school year, as classrooms across the country begin the heavy lifting of implementing new standards and striving for college and career readiness, the work becomes more important than ever.
So, come and check out the Socratic Circles Community. Click “Like” and join us. Engage in the conversation and collaboration. This is the time to finally break free from our Styrofoam sarcophagi, to escape our egg-carton mentality, and to model for our students the kind of lifelong learning we desire to see in them.
We recently sat down with Kim Yaris and Jan Miller Burkins, authors of the new book Reading Wellness: Lessons in Independence and Proficiency. During the conversation they talked about how teaching kids the importance of the heavy lifting their brains do while figuring things out during reading helps them become more independent readers and learners. Watch the video below and then preview the book online!
National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Annual Convention
November 20-23 • National Harbor, Maryland
Stacey Shubitz, Jeff Anderson & Debbie Dean, Dorothy Barnhouse, Jean Boreen, Jan Burkins & Kim Yaris, Rose Cappelli, Kathy Collins, Ann Marie Corgill, Andie Cunningham, Smokey Daniels, Lynne Dorfman, Ralph Fletcher, Kelly Gallagher, Mary Lee Hahn, Stephanie Harvey & Anne Goudvis, Georgia Heard, Sara Kajder, Heather Lattimer, Cathy Mere, Kate Messner, Donna Niday, Penny Silvers, Lee Ann Spillane, Melissa Stewart, and Annie Ward