Here is a comment I made to Ben Johnson’s blog titled, College Readiness: How to Help Students Think Abstractly
Half the fun of learning and teaching is to crisscross bridges from the concrete to the abstract and back. We do it all the time. For example, in my latest post <sdodd.edublogs.org> I share the way I physically float papers to students as a way to get them to consider the abstract concept of, “Think before you speak.” Students delight in figuring out and learning metaphors such as, “The rub is….” Puns, too, help students think. (Of course, all my students know that the arguable reason cows have bells around their necks is because their horns don’t work.) Also, morphing common sayings such as, “Speak now, or forever hold you nose,” and at the end of the day announcing to the class, “Chair up! Be happy!” are ways to play with images through words. Metaphors, puns, and saying surprising, catchy statements keep students on their mental toes and engaged with the notion of, ” What will happen next?”
I teach moments, and I float papers to students to do so.
From day-one of the school year, whenever I distribute paper to individual students in class, the students reach out to receive the pages and I give the paper a slight, early push. The paper glides for a moment into each student’s hand. For a while those floating moments go unnoticed, until one day, one of the students will glance up in recognition and delight in the moment we just shared between the giving and the taking of the paper. Other students soon notice, too. Eventually one of the students will say, “Why do you do that, Mr. Dodd?” and at that point I have earned the opportunity to explain.
I tell my students about my high school classmate, Bert Raddock, who taught me the notion, “If you can’t think big, think fast,” which I get them to agree is good advice-especially the “think fast” part. Then I go on to explain to my inquiring students that I float the papers to them to give them a concrete example of hidden moments they really need to use. “In fact,” I tell them, “even if I did not float the papers, there would still be a moment between the giving and the taking of the paper, and the same moment is there when you talk.”
Now here is the point. The students need to identify and learn to exploit that moment between the instant they think of something to say and instant they decide to say it or not. There is always time in there to think and make a decision. Using that “floating”moment of thought takes practice because it is an elusive moment for young minds to recognize, but the paper makes it real. Even some of my second graders get the idea. My fifth graders begin to perfect it.
Once we have had the floating moment discussion in class, I tell them that I do not need to float papers any more, but they usually convince me to continue the float, and I am glad, because it is fun to do, and it reinforces the point they need to remember: Think before you speak.
I found myself, along with my family, sightseeing through the mountains of North Carolina last fall. We stopped and wandered into a local art store. With 150 artists represented inside, I looked around and thought to myself, “A better name for this place would be, ‘Hell, I Could Make That!’” My only interest there was to get some ideas that I might use to build into a classroom lesson sometime. To my surprise, though, I encountered a small, sand-filled barrel with ceramic stars on sticks arranged like a flowers. They were, “magic wands,” and the stars that stood out to me were the ones that said, “Poof! You’re a Genius!”
Without hesitation, I knew I was willing to pay the $20+ price tag for one of the magic wands, but I wasn’t exactly sure why. I knew there was something about it I needed to explore beyond the little ceramic heart attached to the bottom end of the stick. With the magic wand inside a fancy bag in my hand, I queried myself about the relevance of my purchase as we returned to the car and continued to drive the mountain roads.
At first I thought I landed a joke, which I am confident was the artist’s intent. To extend the joke I was going to make a Plexiglas-fronted box to place in a strategic place in my classroom with the wand visible and the words, “Brake glass in case of emergency.” We have all harbored the notion that if we had at least a little more brain power we could solve our problems. So I planned the construction of the box.
Later, I got to thinking more about my plan. I began to consider the implications of the joke. Suppose a student in class makes a mistake. I might pull out the magic wand and affectionately tap the student on the head and say, “Poof! You’re a Genius! Go and do better.” We would laugh together, I am sure, but what message would I be sending? The joke sends a message to the heart that I do not believe I am willing to express. The joke is that the person is not good enough in a way that only magic can change. Since it is a joke, we both would know the magic would not work. So with a tap I would have told the student that he or she was not good enough simply for the sake of a laugh. The real message would be that there is nothing the student could do in difficult situations. I was beginning to regret my purchase.
But there was still something about the wand that attracted me. The more I thought about it, the more I realized I was underestimating the pervasive wish we all have to be endowed with better brains, and that is what I could use to send a different message. I found the relevance of the “Magic Wand!”
Now, I keep the wand in my top file drawer. When things get tough in class and the students feel trapped, unable to successfully solve a problem, I pull the wand out and ask them, “What are the two great things we need to remember about this Magic Wand?” Since they have all seen the wand before, they quickly respond, in chorus with renewed enthusiasm, “It doesn’t work, and we don’t need to be a genius!” Then they go and do better.
There has been a large amount of discussion surrounding ways to implement change in education, and the question of whether mandates work comes up about as often as the frequency of mandates passed down. I believe conflicts begin when authorities mandate procedures instead of outcome goals. Change as a process, and the imprecision of the sequence of activities required to make sustained, positive change are both key factors when considering how to implement change. For skilled, reflective teaching professionals, resistance converts to productive dialogue when mandates are limited to outcomes. Dominating mandates that dictate teacher flexibility work for teaching technicians who find more confidence in prepared programs than the professionals who understand and apply researched, peer-reviewed, and accepted educational teaching concepts. Peter Senge (1990), who wrote The Fifth Discipline seeks to replicate this higher standard of professionalism in education. The resulting behavior of teaching professionals who seek “personal mastery” plays out as negative resistance whenever mandates are questioned. Comprehensive process-type mandates clearly stifle teacher professionalism. Hall and Hord (2011) open their text, Implementing Change: Patterns, Principles, and Potholes with their Change Principle 9 and say that Mandates Can Work, which they solidify by saying that the principle holds true for all cases. In their view there is no room for debate, only discussion about how the mandate will be fulfilled. This means to me that, in their text, they are addressing technicians in education, and not professionals, even though they promote Senge’s work as an ideal that is rarely achieved.
One up side to teacher resistance to mandates, as another graduate student described to me, is that it fosters reflection on aspects of change on a personal level. I agree, but I would add, with emphasis, that the personal reflections made by a highly professional teacher have a direct impact on classroom instruction, whereas the reflections of an instructional technician, as I described above, are not nearly as significant to instruction. Strict, comprehensive mandates promote technicians, not teaching professionals. Teaching professionals have an obligation, therefore, to resists effectively, not negatively, in order to remain professional and to promote a professional practice in education.
I recently responded to an article in the June 22, 2010 Wilmington Star News (hard copy only). I wrote:
I have a message for your audience: that is, Reader Beware!
In his June twenty-second article, “Gulf Oil Leak Wouldn’t Yet Fill Up Superdome,” Associated Press writer, Gareth McGrath tosses us a red herring with distracting comparisons of the massive oil leak to similarly massive volumes such as the Mississippi River’s effluent and the space inside nine-thousand-plus living rooms under the guise of a better perspective. Quantities of spilled oil do not compare with similar quantities of airspace within architectural spaces. What is worse, is that McGrath sights a “mathematical context” (which, being math, many readers hesitate to argue against) and tells us that the problem, “isn’t that huge,” because lots of water is rushing into the gulf. The spill IS huge! The consequences are DIRE! While his Superdome comparison may be true, no true statement can make a bad argument valid. I sometimes need to remind myself to read critically. At best, McGrath’s article is not worth printing. At worst, it is drivel, not unlike the leak, itself, that is aimed to desensitize us from the bane of flora and fauna in the gulf. Instead of passing around red herrings, our time would be better spent supporting the clean up efforts in places such as East Grand Terre Island, where the white breasted, first year herring gulls have turned orange from the oil mess. Let’s make the effort go from “red herrings” to orange herrings to clean, white herrings.
June 22, 2010
Cole, C. (2010, June 6). Gulf oil spill: Birds in Barataria Bay hit hard. Los Angeles
For the past couple of weeks my classes have been muddying the waters as they study the ways land (soil) and water interact together. Using a dirt-filled plastic tote with a hole in the corner, they each set up a variety of situations- each with a messy potential, I mean, a messy attraction. At about the same time we discussed vocabulary that included “meander,” “tributary,” “deposition,” and “delta.”
We are learning out-write that experiencing new concepts, rules and relationships are learned in tandem with the vocabulary used to identify the concepts. Sometimes the experience comes first, while other times the words and definitions lead the way. I have found that two important aspect of this learning combination is that the students need to realize that concepts and raw information such as vocabulary are learned differently, and, secondly, that these two ways of learning work best when addressed in succession- not really at the same time, but one after the other.
After mucking around long enough to recognize how water percolates and how run off changes the topography, we went to the GeoGlossary map in the GeoSkills program we have available on our computer network. There we connected and noted key vocabulary while we discussed the way the words matched our messy classroom experience.
The following day we took watercolor paint to paper to represent the concepts we have learned. I uploaded representative student sample paintings to a Voice Thread at >> http://voicethread.com/share/1111445/ . Watch as the students add detailed comments to the voice thread about what is going on, scientifically speaking, in the river scenes. The students are in the process of setting up Gaggle accounts to complete the task.
The elementary school where I work has a new Mission Statement. It reads:
“At [CBES] we will be a positive, supportive community focused on helping all children become responsible learners who are well versed in 21st Century Skills, and who are able to express a purposeful attitude of life-long learning by demonstrating consistent improvement of North Carolina Standards.”
The new mission statement makes a connection between the learning community the school wants to be and the accountability it must be responsible to fulfill without making those two efforts synonymous. CBES teaches students to be curious, to pay attention to detail, and to discover new ideas that will stay and serve them with them as they grow.
To some, it may seem as though the school is making a pledge to force students to go to infinity and then beyond, as if solid school-wide standardized testing scores are unattainable, and then to ask for more. Instead, the school’s intent is the other way around. If CBES helps students become thoughtful problem solvers with a useful vocabulary, the students will be able to navigate benchmark probes and End of Grade Tests as one more of life’s problems to solve. This way life-long learning comes first.
Accountability is necessary. The school’s new mission statement reminds the school community to stay on the track of ensuring that each student achieves his/her highest potential. It is a track that passes through successful End of Grade Testing.
While teaching students new information, I recognize their need for a cognitive strategy to help them identify their own level of understanding. I think this is certainly true when the they are learning verbal information such as lists, and I think similar strategies would benefit the students when they are learning intellectual skills such as concepts and even motor skills.
I came up the vocabulary to describe four levels of understanding based on degrees of prompting and fluency. Cleverly, I decided to call the levels, Level One, Two, Three, and Four. Greater understanding is the higher level, but the levels are not directly associated to letter grades or the four-point grading scale. Let me explain.
Level One Understanding means that the student can achieve 100% accuracy of a knowledge set WITH assistance and WITH hesitation. Level Two Understanding means the student can achieve 100% accuracy of a knowledge set WITH assistance but WITHOUT hesitation. Level Three Understanding means the student can achieve 100% accuracy of a knowledge set WITHOUT assistance, but WITH hesitation. Level Four Understanding means the student can achieve 100% accuracy of a knowledge set WITHOUT assistance and WITHOUT hesitation.
After introducing and working with these levels in class, students and I have come up with a description at each end of the scale for learners above and those below the four basic levels. When students know a poem so well that they can recite it with emotion and meaning, we call that “Level Four-Ahhhh!.” When a student cannot muster correct answers to a reasonable list with a reference aid and with plenty of time, we call that, “Level One- Yeech!”
It is important for each student to know that Level One Understanding of a new list is a normal part of the learning process and not an embarrassment. From my experience, students who are comfortable with the beginning stages of their own learning tend not to advertise their ignorance as they progress. On the other hand, students who are not comfortable with their own learning process tend to make loud, demeaning jokes about the material and/ or themselves which halts their learning process. When my students learn to be comfortable with themselves at Level One, they move to two and three and four more readily.
My students reach Level Two Understanding when they become more familiar with the material. They still need help, but level two offers the students a license to receive help while taking on increasing responsibility.
Students achieve Level Three Understanding when they know material without any help or prompting, but when they still hesitate. Level Three can get a student an A on a test, but in conversation and in practical terms, level three understanding is not really effective because the opportunity to apply the knowledge usually comes and goes quickly which leaves the students with the notion that they knew what they should have said because they staggered to recall information. One of the key elements of this strategy is to get students to recognize the value of their effort to achieve Level Four Understanding.
Therefore, Level Four Understanding is the goal of learning materials for application, and the goal of the students study efforts. Fluent recall of some knowledge sets are used for life. Multiplication facts are one such example. In a future blog I will share the method I use teach math facts that incorporates the Four Levels of Understanding. I created a notebook on it to keep me organized as work with students who progress at different rates and everything. Stay tuned.
When the students return from spring break, this mini salt marsh is what they will find in the classroom. The materials were collected, with permission, locally. The mini salt marsh is a fantastic jump-off point for the class’s study of both ecosystems and land & water. From my past experience with pond-like water features in the classroom, this will last up to eleven school days.
The topic of my last post on “Academic Respect” gives me reason to believe that the students will be able to focus together on the science of the mini marsh, and not simply play around.
As I was collecting material, I know there are a variety of life working together in this small 5 foot by six foot space. Watch for future posts on how to put this feature together in the classroom.