“What You Are Really Teaching Them Is Comprehension.”

This last unit, I did a lot of things differently with my AP Euro students. Concerned over a lack of reading and understanding along with difficulty applying knowledge on the part of the students, I knew that, if the class was to be successful moving forward, I had to make some adjustments. I could ignore the signs or wish for things to be different, but come May, the results would speak for themselves.

We spent the unit reading and responding to the readings together, with me walking them through the process more than I might like (or more than I think I should have to do) with an AP class. We spent time talking about how to read, how to take notes, how to decipher what is most important. In short, we went “old school” with a focus on reading, writing, and good old-fashioned thinking. On Friday, with the test scheduled for Monday (today), I had the students do an activity in which they connected every piece of the unit to every other piece via a gigantic web of identifications and terms from our study. When I recounted this last activity to my school’s resource specialist as an effective method of study, she said, “Yes, you are teaching them how to study, but what you are really teaching them is comprehension.” I had not really thought of it that way until she said it, but I think she’s right. Many of the students had not realized that all they were learning was truly connected, often in more ways than one. They understood that some of it was connected, but all of it? That had escaped them entirely. When I helped them see that, they could understand the material better. Comprehension skyrocketed.

You don’t have to just take my word for it either. The test scores skyrocketed as a result. Most students saw a 10- to 15- point jump in their scores. (While I curved their last test for a number of reasons, I did not scale this latest test at all. So even those students who scored the same actually did much, much better than previously.) One student near tears two weeks ago and frustrated beyond measure scored the highest out of everyone.

Why am I telling you this? In part, I had a good day, and I feel like sharing. ūüôā But more importantly because I still have many questions. For example, how do I convince my students that the hard work they did and the success they experienced was about more than just a grade? How do I convince them that if they do less well on the next assessment it’s not a crisis but an opportunity? And how do I convince parents of these same things?

I’ve written before about the perils of assuming too much when it comes to teaching and learning. (Click here.) This latest saga in AP Euro reminded me that I can’t assume my current students know how to do the same things my previous students did or my upcoming students will. It also reminded me that students generally want to do well and will more often than not rise to your expectations. Some of them may just need a little more help or a different kind of help along the way.

The icing on the cake for me today was the number of students I saw in the hallways or who emailed me who asked if they’d really earned the grade they saw online. Had they done it on their own, or did I give them some points back out of mercy? They wanted to know that they did it on their own. “Yes, you earned it. You did well,” I said time and again.

 

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“It Was the Best of Times, It Was the Worst of Times…”

It’s that time of year again, that incredibly important but incredibly daunting time of year for teachers and students. ¬†Because each individual group of students that comes to me is slightly different than the last, it’s about this time of the year (October, actually) that I get a firm grasp on who these particular students are, what their strengths and weaknesses are, and how best to reach them as opposed to some other group of students. ¬†With my current AP Euro group, I now realize there are two things we need to work on as group: reading informational text and reasoning critically by seeing connections or patterns across content. ¬†Neither of these two skills are easy to teach or learn, and yet they are crucial components to studying anything.

Sometimes you are given just the help you need at just the right time, however. ¬†Last week, I received the latest edition of EL Magazine, put out by ASCD. ¬†If you don’t get this magazine, I urge you to get a subscription. This particular edition is all about how to teach students to “tackle informational text.” ¬†The magazine is filled with article after article about how to immerse students neck-deep in difficult readings and teach them to tread water and eventually swim ashore. ¬†It’s not so much that the articles told me a bunch of stuff I didn’t already know, so much as they affirmed what I thought was true. ¬†A little affirmation can help a teacher move forward when the path gets rough.

In addition to these articles, I went back and read the previous edition of EL magazine that dealt with teaching students “resiliency.” ¬†For my AP Euro students, many of whom have done very well in school with an average amount of effort, learning to bounce back from (what they perceive as?) poor grades is just as important as learning to read informational text or think critically. ¬†What I liked about one particular article called “The Significance of Grit,” however, was that grit was not just defined as bouncing back. ¬†Rather Angela Lee Duckworth defined grit as “not just having resilience in the face of failure, but also having deep commitments that you remain loyal to over the many years.” ¬†She went on to say, “Grit predicts success over and beyond talent. ¬†When you consider individuals of equal talent, the grittier ones do better.”¬†Finally, she described a current study she is doing, saying, “We tell kids that deliberate practice is not easy. ¬†You are going to be confused. ¬†You are going to be frustrated. ¬†When you’re learning, you have to make mistakes. ¬†You need to do things over and over again, and that can be boring.” ¬†What I found rare and refreshing was that last bit, “that can be boring.” ¬†If you read most educational literature these days, boring is like a four-letter word. ¬†But Duckworth doesn’t necessarily agree. Reading informational text at times may not be the most engaging activity, even when the teacher tries to pick a text that is interesting for students. This, however, does not negate the need to read informational text well.

I’m going to close this post with another very important point from this same article. ¬†“There are a lot of fragile gifted and talented kids who don’t know how to fail. ¬†They don’t know how to struggle, and they don’t have a lot of practice with it. ¬†Being gifted [or talented] is no guarantee of being hardworking or passionate about something.”

Content vs. Skills: Another False Dichotomy

Oh, will we ever learn? ¬†The field of education, perhaps more than any other field that I can easily think of right now except perhaps politics, suffers from groups of professionals arguing both sides of a non-existent debate. ¬†I have written about the perils of false dichotomies in education elsewhere (here), but unfortunately they don’t seem to be going anywhere soon. ¬†The latest debate, which as I said isn’t really a debate at all, is about content vs. skills. Should our curriculum be content- or skills-driven? ¬†Which should take precedence: content or skills? ¬†If we need to cut something from our curriculum, should it be content or skills?¬†When I hear these kinds of questions, my head wants to explode. ¬†It seems quite obvious to me that we need both, that our curriculum should be rich both in content and skills. ¬†So why, if it’s easy for me and many others to see this, does the debate exist at all? ¬†I have a few thoughts.

First, at least some on the skills side of the debate appear to have a narrow definition or understanding of “skills.” ¬†For some, skills seem to be only things that are hands-on or experiential in nature. ¬†So, for instance, ¬†being able to make a 3-dimensional object is easily labeled as a skill. ¬†But what about writing an argumentative essay? ¬†Is that a skill? ¬†What about thinking through a problem logically? ¬†Is that a skill? ¬†I thought these things were skills, but I started to question myself so I actually looked up the definition of the word skill. ¬†Here it is: ¬†Skill (n.) 1.¬†Proficiency, facility, or dexterity that is acquired or developed through training or experience. 2. a.¬†An art, trade, or technique, particularly one requiring use of the hands or body. b.¬†A developed talent or ability: writing skills. ¬†So while definition 2a points to the use of hands or body in determining whether something is a skill, this is only one of 3 possible definitions, and the most narrow one at that. ¬†Skills, broadly defined, involve anything in which one develops proficiency or ability. ¬†Thus, cognitive skills are truly skills.

Many people also fail to realize “content is king,” at least when it comes to reading comprehension, and reading comprehension, of course, influences every aspect of education. ¬†Studies have shown that, when students have more background knowledge on a particular subject, they can better comprehend and analyze a written passage or verbal message about that subject. ¬†How do they acquire that background knowledge? ¬†Hopefully through a curriculum rich with content.

Once when some of my history students were having a particularly rough day and not in the best of moods, I asked them why they thought we were studying European history. ¬†(Shout out to the class of 2011!) ¬†I held up a history book, and I asked, “Do you think you will remember every fact, every event, every person that we’ve learned about this year?” ¬†Of course, they answered in the negative, and I agreed with them. ¬†I went on to explain that we were using the content of history to learn skills that they would take with them into other areas of their lives that had nothing to do with European history. ¬†While I hoped they would remember a lot of the history or at least have an appreciation for the past, what I really cared about was that they left my class able to think. ¬† I went on to list the skills that I knew they were developing in my course: critical analysis, argumentative writing, an ability to see patterns and connections, effective communication, an ability to feel empathy or see differing perspectives, reading comprehension, etc. ¬†These are cognitive skills, thinking skills, but they are skills that students in the 21st century need. ¬†But in order to teach these things, one has to hang her hat on something, and for me, that something is history. ¬†The content gives me the framework to teach the skills to the students, and it provides the framework for them to learn the skills. ¬†Maybe because the two things – content and skills – are so inextricably intertwined it’s difficult for people to see this. ¬†I don’t know.

Here’s what I do know. ¬†It’s not an either/or. ¬†It’s not content or skills. ¬†When you find yourself in the middle of such an argument, take a deep breath, try not to let your head explode, and enjoy from the sidelines yet another non-existent debate.