In my previous post, I offered up a reflective exercise on using technology to enhance basic skills, and I began the thinking exercise here. I left off with the question, “What technological tools exist to help students learn about and master these skills?” From my list of 13 skills, I decided to focus on several issues that overlap: reading comprehension, vocabulary, and critical thinking.
One of the biggest issues I’ve had thus far this year is getting my students to understand that there are multiple ways of saying the same thing. Often my students get a question wrong on a test and argue that, “That’s not what you said in class, or that’s not what it said in the book.” Well, it’s true that I didn’t use those exact words. In fact, I purposely used different words on the test to say the same thing to see whether the students actually understood the material or simply memorized it. Do you ever run into this issue? It’s a case of lack of comprehension, poor vocabulary, and memorization versus critical thinking.
So I did some thinking, some Internet-perusing, and some talking with the technology integrationists at my school. (Shout out to Karen and Frank. Oh, and you should check out Karen’s blog here.) I wanted to make sure that I got this post out rather quickly to prove that one can, in a relatively limited amount of time, come up with possibilities for tackling this issue and others. In other words, no excuses for not having the time to integrate the technology.
Here’s one possibility I’ve come up with so far with some caveats at the end.
Use VoiceThread. Post either a short paragraph or a multiple choice test question on VoiceThread. Have the students read the post. Ask them to respond by paraphrasing the paragraph or restating the question in their own words. You can tell them which words they can’t use from the original in their own response, forcing them to think about the original words and consider words or phrases that mean the same thing. Because you don’t want one student to post and the remaining students to just copy, you must plan ahead and place certain limitations and parameters on the assignment. For instance, you could have students do this in smaller groups because it is true that you can only say the same thing in so many different ways. Students will eventually run out of ways to say the same thing. But if the groups are small enough, you can make it so that no one can simply say the same thing as someone else without some variation. You can also coach them not to view others’ responses until they’ve completed their own. Grading based on effort and completion rather than on accuracy (at least in the beginning) will take away some of the temptation for students to cheat off of and copy others. Require that each student provide an original example, analogy, or anecdote in their response to make sure that they are not simply copying. Require students to critique one another’s responses in addition to crafting their own. I can envision something along the lines of Johnny saying, “Jenny, that’s not what I got out of the paragraph. I thought it was saying such and such.”
Is this better or easier than doing this verbally or on paper in class? Yes! Here’s a few reasons why I believe so. Doing this in class takes up time you may not always have for these kinds of basic skills, particularly at the upper school level where content matter is so important. Also, doing this activity in class does not give students enough time to reflect and makes it easier for some students to fall through the cracks. In addition, this way requires no paper, which does in fact save time in the end. Finally, students can view one another’s responses for as long as it takes. The responses are in the cloud rather than on a piece paper in someone’s binder.
Now for the caveats…This does take planning on your part. You can’t have 20 students using VoiceThread all at once on the same short paragraph and get quality responses. So as I said, your best bet is to break your class into smaller groups. In addition, you probably don’t want to grade 80 responses per week, but the good thing is, you don’t have to do so. You could set your small groups up on a rotating basis throughout the term so that only 5 to 8 students are responding in any given week, or you could make them all do it every time but randomly choose who gets graded on any given week.
Now, for the final excuse that may be running through your head. “Some students still won’t do what I’m asking,” you say. Yes, unfortunately, that’s true.
But I think more students will than not. And who are we here for really? So a few won’t get anything out of it. Is that a good enough reason to abandon a quality and necessary assignment or activity? Not in my opinion.
So I am putting my money where my mouth is. I am starting the 1920s and 1930s next week with my AP European history students. This is always a tough unit because students have a difficult time understanding fascism, communism, etc. I plan on using VoiceThread in the way that I have described next week with my students to help them understand what they are reading regarding these different concepts. I will post how it goes next week. Do I think it will work perfectly? No way! But you’ve got to start somewhere.