Shall We Dance?

I haven’t always given exam study guides, but I’d say more often than not I have done so. In addition, sometimes I’ve given credit for kids “completing” a study guide.  Usually that credit took the form of extra points on their earned exam grade.  But in recent years I’ve grown frustrated both by the study guide and the bonus points, and I set out this year to do something different.

I didn’t feel like I could go cold turkey and not give some kind of bonus opportunity.  It seems like many teachers around my school give study guides, and I can understand why. When the exam makes up 20% of the semester grade, you want to give a bit of cushion and wiggle room for a student. Also, many teachers see their study guides as just that – guides that help students prepare for the exam.  Since so many in my school do give some kind of bonus opportunity, I felt like it was kind of expected, even though I’m not forced to do so and some teachers do not.

While in chemistry and mathematics, you can give study guides where students practice solving problems, in history, this is a little more difficult to do.  Most history study guides I’ve seen amount to a list of terms and possible short answer or essay questions.  Students who define the terms and answer the questions may get points on their exam.  I always had problems with this method, but I admit to having used it in the past.  First, it forces students to study in a specific way that may or may not be the best method for him or her. They spend all this time completing a study guide, and since that’s not the best way for them to learn the material, they learn very little for all the time spent. Second, defining terms doesn’t require students to think deeply about the material.  And finally, in this day and age, there’s too many ways to copy and share work that is not one’s own.  So no more history study guides for me.*

I was left in a bind.  I wanted to provide a bonus opportunity.  I wanted to tie it closely in to what we were studying.  I wanted it to be authentic.  I didn’t want it to be too time-consuming or onerous since I wanted them to spend time studying in the ways that worked for them.  I also started to think that something active might be good since around exam time students spend so much time just sitting and staring at paper and screens. What to do?  Make them dance.

This semester my students learned and performed “The Charleston” as their exam bonus opportunity.  It seemed to fit all my requirements and then some.  They had to learn at least 3 different steps of the dance and film themselves performing those steps for a certain length of time.  The results were at times hilarious, at times endearing, at times surprising.  The truth of the matter is that the amount of bonus points given for this were minimal when calculating the semester average rather than just the exam grade.  I’m sure some of the students figured this out, but it didn’t stop most of them from giving it a go. I’m so glad they did.  Whether or not they remember what the Payne-Aldrich Tariff did, I think they will remember learning and dancing “The Charleston.

*This was not a popular decision amongst the students.  Even though we review after each unit throughout the semester, they wanted that darn list of terms.  By not giving this out though, I witnessed students getting themselves organized, talking about how they were going to tackle studying for the history exam, and coming up with their own study methods.  Even if this didn’t always work out for the students, they were learning how to study and how not to study throughout the process in a way that they would not have if I’d handed them a study guide.  In assessing their exams, I took into account the fact that I did not give a study guide and that they were on their own.



Don’t Forget to Tell Your Students to Mind the Gap

The other day I picked on anatomy teachers so it’s only fair that history teachers get a little grief as well, and who better to pick on than myself?  It’s so easy to do. 🙂  In my last post, I wrote about how “Mind the Gap” is my new mantra, reminding me that to get my students to think critically I need to leave some gaps between what I’ve taught and they already know and what I want them to learn or do.  I keep this little phrase in mind when I design my lesson plans and assessments, and I’m always looking for the gap.

Recently, we studied the Great Depression and the New Deal, and I designed a few short answers for students to complete with “mind the gap” firmly in mind.   We’d studied the economic, political, and social aspects of the Great Depression already.  Separately, we also looked at 1930s culture – music, movies, art, etc.  Neither I nor they had made any direct or explicit connections between the Great Depression and what was going on in the culture of America at that time.  I designed a short answer in which I asked them to find the connections and explain how the culture of the 1930s reflected the Great Depression. Since we hadn’t addressed this, I thought it would require them to think critically about how what they’d learned in one area connected with what they’d learned in another area, i.e. bridge the gap.

When I read through their responses, I went from frustrated to bewildered to exasperated to I don’t know what.  You see, many of my students wrote lovely responses on the culture of the 1930s.  They filled their responses with lots of specific factual information, something I require. They could tell me names of artists and their artwork.  They could tell me about that artwork.  Very nice responses were written about Edward Hopper’s moody and isolating Room in New York (1932).  (I love Edward Hopper, don’t you?)  What they didn’t tell me, however, was how that painting reflected the Great Depression.  They could tell me in detail about various films of the 1930s from Gone With the Wind to The Wizard of Oz to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. What they didn’t tell me, however, was how those films connected to the Great Depression.  What they didn’t do was answer the question at hand; they didn’t bridge the gap.

After reading response after response, and writing the same feedback comments on nearly all, I had one of those facepalm moments, albeit figuratively not literally.  I realized they didn’t see the gap, and thus, they didn’t know they were supposed to be minding it.  They learned about culture in the 1930s.  The question asked about culture in the 1930s, at least generally speaking, and thus they told me all they knew about it, which in many cases was quite a bit.  Case closed.  Can I have my A now, please?

What to do?  Show them the gap and then tell them to mind it.  Before returning their assessments, I put “Mind the Gap” in nice big letters on my SmartBoard, below which was the short answer question with which they had struggled.  I went through what the phrase meant in this context and why it was so important, to me and to them.  Then, we talked. We discussed what they had learned about the Great Depression.  Then, we discussed what they had learned about 1930s culture.  We discussed what the question was asking them to do with that information, and we identified the gap.  Then, we discussed how good responses would bridge the gap.  They rewrote their responses, and only then, did they get their original work back for comparison purposes.

In the end, the students realized exactly what they were tasked with doing and could indeed critically think their way through the problem at hand.  But heavens, am I going to have to remind them daily to do this, I wondered.  In short, yes.  Yes, I will have to remind them constantly to mind the gap.  Why?  There’s no easy answer, but here’s a few possibilities.  First, they aren’t used to it.  Most students are great memorizers, at least in the short-term, and they are used to simply memorizing information and spitting it back. They have been trained for good or ill to do this, and that’s their fallback position.  Second, they are high school students who spend 47 minutes in each of 7 classes a day, moving quickly from one subject matter and one teacher to another on a rotating schedule. Expectations in one class are not the same in another (nor should they be), and thus, they need to be reminded what it is I want from them.  Third, I need to remind myself when creating the lesson or assessment to create the gaps.  Is it any wonder they need to be reminded to fill them? And finally, yes, at some point they will internalize it, but it will happen for different students at different times.  Some of them already have done this, but I can’t just leave the ones who haven’t to fend for themselves.

So please, mind the gap, but don’t forget to tell your students to do so as well.



Mind the Gap

One of my favorite lines in The Princess Bride comes when, after hearing Vizzini use the word inconceivable multiple times, Inigo Montoya says, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”  For you see, despite Vizzini’s words, the inconceivable continually happens and becomes conceivable.  This scene came to mind recently after I had a discussion with a colleague about critical thinking.  We were discussing how many times even the best teachers think they are getting at critical thinking in their lessons and assessments when they just…aren’t.  Montoya might as well say to us, “You keep using that phrase – critical thinking.  I do not think it means what you think it means.”

A few years ago I bought one of those Bloom’s taxonomy flip charts, thinking that it would help me devise more higher-order thinking questions.  The flip chart came with question stems and key words for the different levels of Bloom’s taxonomy.  Use more of the question stems and key words from the upper levels and you’re bound to be requiring your students to think critically, right?  Well, maybe, but then again, maybe not.

Here’s one relatively obvious example.  Level V (the second-highest level, mind you) of the Revised Bloom’s Taxonomy is evaluating, and on my flip chart, one of the key words for this level is explain.  Using the word explain in an assessment could very well require students to think critically, but depending on what you’ve actually taught them, explain could also require nothing more from students than regurgitating memorized information.  For example, if, in his anatomy class, Teacher A explained how the heart works like a pump to his students, giving them the step by step process, then asking them to explain how the heart works on an assessment doesn’t require much thinking on the part of the students. They simply have to remember the steps you told them in the order you told them.  On the other hand, take Teacher B.  Teacher B did not explain how the heart works as a pump to her students, but instead provided those students with simulations and other resources that they were to examine on their own with some limited guidance from the teacher.  They were tasked with figuring out based on what they were observing in the simulations how the heart works as a pump and then asked to explain the process just like the students of Teacher A.  The students of Teacher B are engaged in critical thinking, while those in Teacher A’s class are not, and yet the task as written remained the same with the same Level V word from Bloom’s taxonomy:  Explain how the heart works like a pump.

I realize that this seems really obvious, but I do believe many teachers, including myself, fall into the trap of thinking they are getting at critical thinking when they are not.  This led me to think about how I could guard against this.  That’s when another line popped into my head.  In London, when riding the Underground, you hear repeatedly over and over as you enter and exit the train cars, “mind the gap.”  It’s meant to remind you that there is a space between platform and car that one can fall into if not careful.  While the gap on the Underground is not a place one wants to end up, in the case of teaching it’s exactly where we want to be.  We want to be in the gap.  We want to create a gap between what we have taught and where we want our students to go with that information.  It’s in the gap that the critical thinking takes place regardless of the words we use, whether they fall at Level III or Level V of Bloom’s.  Above, there are no gaps in Teacher A’s teaching and assessing, but in the case of Teacher B, the students are smack in the middle of the gap while being provided with the necessary tools to help them successfully bridge it.

So, as they say in London, mind the gap.  It’s become my new teaching mantra.  Each time I make any kind of activity or assessment, I am reminding myself to leave some gaps for students to wallow in and think in for a while.  And if they get lost or stuck, I’ll be there to throw a rope their way.


Down With Quizlet, Up With Brain Maps

Confession time.  When I first learned about Quizlet, I thought it was a good idea.  Online flashcards that can be created and shared incredibly easily, and the students can learn those terms in more ways than just flipping through the definitions.  What’s not to like? It turns out, a fair amount.  Unfortunately, students have become quite attached to their Quizlet, and I’m having a fairly hard time convincing them to abandon it altogether or at the very least broaden their horizons with other study methods.*

I don’t actually believe Quizlet must be abandoned in total.  Used well, I think it can serve a purpose. Students who use it as a first step on the road to real learning have my blessing to make as many Quizlets as they wish.  Go forth and conquer, I say.  After all, I had shoeboxes filled with flashcards when I was in high school.**  Too many of my students, however, are relying on Quizlet for the bulk of their studying, and it’s this that I find increasingly frustrating.

The problems with Quizlet are the same as with good old-fashioned notecards or reading and memorizing one’s notes verbatim. Students can convince themselves that they know the material, but they really just know those words in that particular order.  They don’t necessarily know or understand connections between the words or how concepts fit together.  When confronted with the same material in a different way, they can’t think their way through it because they’ve relied too much on the most basic of memorization. When the resulting test grade is lower than a student would have liked, I often hear, “But I knew every term when I studied my Quizlet!”  To which I would like to reply, “Who cares?”

I don’t do this, of course.  I spend time explaining how one can both know every term and yet not understand any of them.  We then talk about moving from memorization (a key step that I am not denying) to critical thinking and analysis.  It just seems like since Quizlet and similar applications have been created I am having these kinds of conversations with students more and more.  I am spending more and more time teaching them how to study effectively.  Yet, for all my explaining and for all the low test scores, many students remain unconvinced.

While they remain unconvinced, I am convinced.  I am convinced that using brain maps*** is a more effective method for studying, at least in the case of history.  (For a digital version, you can use something like Coggle, but we usually just use good old paper and pen.)  All school year, at the end of each unit, we have mapped our brains.  We start with any concept from the unit, and then we let our brains wander.  If we are studying the western frontier, we may start with Wounded Knee even though that’s near the end of our unit of study.  “What happened there, and what else do you know that connects with that event?  Oh, that makes you think of other conflicts like Little Bighorn and Sand Creek.  Great.  Why are these conflicts happening in the late 19th century?  Westward movement by American settlers is increasing.  Oh, okay.  Well, why is that happening now as opposed to earlier? Easier access due to things like the transcontinental railroad and government support via the Homestead Act.”  And we just keep going and going and making connections and filling in blanks.  Pretty soon, we’ve mapped our brains.

This method does two things that flashcards don’t do.  First, it requires students to know the material rather than see it on a flash card and just recognize it.  There’s nothing on the paper when we start; they either have something in their brains or they don’t.  Second, it requires them to make connections between material.  It’s not enough to know what happened at Little Bighorn and Wounded Knee.  You must see the connection between these events and be able to answer questions about why those conflicts occurred.  If a student is facing a blank page after 10 minutes, he or she knows they need to go back and do some rereading because nothing has truly stuck. If a student can’t connect things together, he or she knows they need to think more deeply, asking why and how rather than just what or who.

Not all my students are convinced.  I still hear students say this method doesn’t work for them, Quizlet is king, blah, blah, blah.  Unlike my students who are wedded till death do them part with Quizlet, I am not wedded to the idea that brain maps are the only effective study method or the best method for every student.  Do I think it’s more effective than Quizlet?  Without a doubt.  Is it the only effective method?  No.  So I encourage them to try something else, anything else that will help them to really digest the material rather than simply regurgitate it.  But I also have said to them that doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is the definition of either insanity or stupidity.  It’s their pick and it’s their grade.

*In addition, I’ve noticed students actually using Quizlet as a kind of research tool.  They don’t know a term, and someone out in the great beyond has created a Quizlet with that term in it.  Instead of going to a reputable source, they take what they find on Quizlet as the absolute truth.  Aggravating and slightly frightening.

**The advantage of real flashcards is the ability to move them around and make connections by placing them next to each other and the like.  If you really want to rely on flashcards, I tell my students, use real ones that can be manipulated more.

*** I am running up against one issue with brain maps.  Since we began by doing them together, some students can get a bit worried if, when working independently on a brain map, their map doesn’t look like someone else’s map.  We’re working on it.