Archive | Uncategorized RSS feed for this section

Genius Hour is Genius Part 1

6 Apr

I first heard about Genius Hour via Twitter, and I was intrigued. Anything that allows students to be highly engaged in their own learning gets my attention. I did a little research on it, and most of what I have found is geared towards elementary and middle-school students.

I modified some existing resources I found on this wiki for Genius Hour and decided to give it a go with my two grade 9 English classes. We have an A/B block schedule, so the idea was that every time we had English on a Friday, we’d have Genius Hour on that class (great idea for last period on Fridays!), which winds up being every other week.

Here are my specific rules for Genius Hour:

  •  You can do anything you want as long as it is learning about or learning to do something (e.g. how to juggle, how to write a novel, carrying out donut taste testing)
  • You have to choose something you are interested in
  • You can learn anything you want but must bring all the materials yourself (e.g. if you are learning to practice frosting techniques for baking, you must bring all the food and hardware yourself)
  • You have to be engaged during the whole class. It is not time to catch up on sleep, passively watch TV, or half-engage. If you don’t like your GH project, change it.
  • You can work in pairs, groups, or apart.
  • You must have a research question that you are trying to answer (“Do students prefer McDonald’s or Burger King for their fast food?”; “When I take apart three different brands of cell phones, are the insides different or the same?”)
  • You must present to the class on your project every month, a 1-2-minute update on your project or what you did and the result when it was finished.
  • The presentation must have a visual component (live performance, a slide show with a photograph or screenshots, etc.) and state the research question clearly in writing.
  • There is no time limit — a project might last one session or six
  • There are no grades for Genius Hour at all, but there is lots of student and teacher feedback and self-reflection at the end of each project.

On the first day of Genius Hour, there was lots of excitement. Here were some of the proposed topics:

  • Donut taste testing
  • The scientific definitions/parameters for race
  • Cupcake and cake piping techniques
  • Writing a novel
  • Self-defense
  • Sign language
  • Learning about the Illuminati
  • Taking apart old cell phones to see what’s inside
  • Finding out why everyone prefers Burger King

Right away I realized an opportunity for learning when the proposed topics of interest were turned into questions. The students didn’t know how to create good research questions. Brittany and Mary, the girls doing the donut taste testing, started with the research question: which is the best donut?” Atash and Haley posed the question: “Why does everyone prefer Burger King?” Hamad and Ray asked: “What’s inside a cell phone?” Ibrahim asked: “What is the scientific definition for race and what are the scientific boundaries that divide the races?”

I decided to go back to my original Google doc form and add some columns, and I did this right in class while they started to work. I first changed the column about the research question to read “Original Proposed Research Question.” Then I added a column next to it that was “Final Research Question.” At the end of the doc, I added a column: “Approved by Teacher” where I could leave my initials once we had conferred and I could sign off on their project and research question as being strong enough that they will have a clear path to learning. Here is my updated Genius Hour Proposal Form – feel free to use, adapt, and share it as you desire.

I then went around to every group or individual and checked in. We talked through the research question and I helped them see that a research question that couldn’t be answered, or that was answered by opinion, or that assumed an outcome that wasn’t necessarily true, was not yet a strong research question. Through five minutes of chatting with each of the first three groups of students, I was able to make them see that they either couldn’t answer their questions or they could answer them too simply (e.g. What’s inside a cell phone? Open it up and there it is. But what did you learn?)

Here’s how the first three questions changed in the first half hour:

  1. “Which is the best donut?” became “Do people prefer chocolate glazed donuts or sprinkles, and do the donuts’ ingredients help suggest why?” (e.g. is there more fat/sugar in the one people prefer?)
  2. “Why does everyone prefer Burger King?” became “Do ninth-graders at our school prefer McDonald’s or Burger King and why?”
  3. “What’s inside a cell phone?” became “What does the inside of a phone look like? How do the insides of a Samsung, iPhone, and Blackberry compare?”

Suddenly, the students saw that refined, specific, answerable research questions set them on a clear path for their first GH. The donut group began designing their taste test; the fast food group began figuring out how to do a survey of all the ninth graders and seek out resources: a teacher who is expert at creating surveys in Google, class lists from the HS office to make sure they sent their survey to everyone, and the grade 9 English teachers to make sure they asked all students to complete the survey. The cell phone group was off and running, seeking advice from the tech director, borrowing tiny tools from the IT office to open the phones, and watching tutorials online as to how to open and take apart cell phones.

The fourth student, Ibrahim, was a little more problematic. I knew when I heard his initial research question, “What is the scientific definition for race and what are the scientific boundaries that divide the races?” that he was going to have a tough time, as science has evolved to move away from scientific definitions of race (e.g. eugenics). I could have just told him this, but I thought I’d see what he came up with. When I checked in with him on his research, he was finding lots of information on what distinguishes one race from another; for example he had pictures of albinos from three different races and he was reading through a page of comparisons of the men’s physical features, other than skin color, based on the photographs. But I quickly noted that he was using Wikipedia. I told him Wikipedia was not a reliable resource page, even though sometimes it can be very helpful as a general overview of something. But I told him he needed to evaluate the sources by making sure they were legitimate, by ensuring they were trusted news organization, like the BBC, or they were a .edu or .gov site, etc.

Ibrahim went back to his research and continued for only a few more minutes before he turned around and said, “Ms. Wiggins, can I change my topic?”

“Sure, why?” I replied.

“Because without Wikipedia, the only sources I’m getting now are ‘’ and ‘Yahoo Answers.’”

“What does that tell you about your topic?” I asked.

He smiled and replied, “That it’s pretty sketchy?”

Bingo. It was such a great moment for me as a teacher to see that in about 15 minutes, a student had himself discovered the importance of good, reliably sourced information in order to proceed with authentic learning. I was glad I hadn’t jumped the gun and just told him to change the topic, because I think he learned the lesson more deeply on his own.

In the end, his research question became, “Is ethnic background a factor in certain medical conditions?” Now that was a research question he could work with, and within minutes, he was finding loads of sites and sources. He checked back in with me several times to ensure that the web site he was using seemed “legit,” and we looked together for the signs — that they were .govs or .edus, that the page had recently been updated, etc. Within one class, Ibrahim had learned what my Extended Essay students in grade 11 often took days and weeks to learn — a good question makes research easy, you can’t trust everything you read on the web, and there are ways to help figure out if sources are reliable.

Stay tuned for the next part on Genius Hour when I’ll share how these projects turned out and how the presentations went.

5 Ways to Reduce Your Grading Time

17 Feb

Some tricks I have invented, heard of, or stolen over the years to help me reduce my grading time.

1. Frontload: do as much formative assessment as possible. The paradox is that it can be more efficient and effective to use the first third of class time to assess students’ work and give brief, specific feedback on what is being done well and what needs to be improved. It feels like “wasted time” but in my experience it is the opposite — a valuable investment. You not only give more feedback more often this way, but you have more data and insights into students’ work and understanding before high-stakes tests or assessments. Don’t give any real grades on this — just practice grades and brief feedback so students understand what they need to do better without being penalized.

2. Embrace the facetime. With a class of 22, I can’t write as much feedback during my “frontloading” formative assessments as I’d like to. Instead, I speak one-to-one with each kid and leave a brief note, a line or two at most, sometimes just a few words, like “raise vocab level.” I find that the face-to-face conference is more effective because most high-school students don’t read or take into account long comments (not the ones that most need to, anyway.) With the face-to-face, better feedback is exchanged, as they can ask follow-up questions they normally wouldn’t when reading their paper comments in class and we can clarify misunderstandings. More facetime like this leads to fewer hours writing long comments.

3. Grade one or two criteria at a time – not all of them. It doesn’t make sense to assess all skills every time. If you are working hard on organization in teaching how to write, try an assessment or two that grade only on “organization” so students don’t need to also worry about spelling and grammar, and depth of analysis. There is no need to fear that expecting less than perfect work will lead to shoddy work overall; think about learning a sport like tennis and imagine if you were expected to serve, smash, volley, and play at the baseline perfectly every time all the time without ever honing those individual skills. Sometimes we need to just work on serves, just assess the serves. This is part of becoming proficient in a skill. Grading this way is much faster and perhaps more efficient for the student in the long run.

4. Outsource your work. Thoughtless peer editing is a waste of everyone’s time, but well designed peer editing can be illuminating. For example, a simple, factual check list can be very effective, one that asks a peer reader to tick “yes” or “no” after questions like:

- Are there many spelling errors?
- Does every paragraph have a topic sentence?
- Does every topic sentence connect back to the thesis?
- Are there at least six quotes used in the essay?
- Are all the quotes correctly cited using MLA parenthetical citation?

These sorts of judgement-free peer editing forms can highlight quickly for students how many errors they need to fix in their work based on the criteria. It does not ask students to rate or grade their peer’s work, which is often unproductive (I find most students are too nice and write things like, “good job!” for any kind of work at all, or they themselves are weak students and can’t recognize the good from the bad themselves). A clear, factual checklist against simple criteria is the way to go here.

Another idea is to ask students to get two other adult readers to sign off on their work and give two suggestions or areas for improvement. This ensures that many more errors will be caught, gives students more authentic audiences than just you, and provides another source of feedback than just you.

5. One brick at a time. Another paradox: I have learned with something as complex as writing is best done in stages and that spending much, much longer on the early stages pays off in the long run. I have spent an entire semester honing students’ writing skills for one, single paragraph. Even in eleventh grade. The problem is if we move on to longer essays and they still aren’t clear on the basics, the grading (and the grades) are usually abysmal. I see more universal progress and confidence in students when I set smaller short-term goals (like the paragraph response). Later, when we put a few strong paragraphs together into a longer essay, it’s much easier to assess because we have already mastered the parts so the conversation just expands to include more of those parts, but I am not teaching for the first time how to write a clear topic sentence, as we have already gotten that part down cold.

And shorter work is also much faster to grade. Grading a stack of bad paragraphs is far faster than a stack of bad essays, and it allows me more time to try that paragraph again with them the next week, allowing for more formative assessment and better, faster improvement (see #1 again).

Advice for New Teachers

11 Feb

The thirteen things I wish I’d known when I started teaching ten years ago: (Why 13? Because it’s my lucky number!)

  1. Don’t do anything but assess the first month of the school year. I only discovered this wonderful piece of advice in the last couple years, and it has really changed my teaching. Instead of diving right in to whatever curriculum or text you’re given, spend the first weeks assessing students’ abilities in your field. I’m a high-school English teacher, so I spent the first month of teaching grade 9 by asking students to do things like annotate their texts as they read by using post-its, but I didn’t tell them how I wanted them to do it. Once I checked their homework and saw the general ability level, I knew I had to go back to square one and teach them annotation 101, so I did. I also asked them to write a multi-paragraph essay in response to the prompt: “Is it true that you can never fully trust anyone?” I did not grade or even mark up the essays, but I did read every one and note them in my grade book as being average, above average, and below average. There were a few that were off the charts low this year, and it was a red flag from the second day of school that helped me keep tabs on students that were quite weak and would likely need extra support and more communication from me. This essay stays in their portfolio in class as a baseline essay against which we can compare their future writing, and the kids feel no stress about it since it didn’t count. I waited a full six weeks into the term to give a single major grade, which allowed the students to adjust to new standards and expectations in high school English and allowed me to help identify weakness and work to strengthen their skills before a single grade is given.
  2. Start student portfolios on the first day of school into which all assessed work goes. This may be old news to education students, but it was brand new news to me, since I had little formal training when I started teaching at 23. I’ve had students keep simple manila folder portfolios, bursting with the year’s writing and rubrics, in the back of the room; I’ve had students in a fancy private school in the Middle East keep e-portfolios of all their work, including video and sound clips. It doesn’t really matter what it looks like, as long as there is a place where the students’ progress and your feedback on it can be kept in one spot. They are wonderful to peruse before doing grades, and great fodder for parent-teacher meetings. At the end of the year, students can review the portfolio’s contents and do a written evaluation of their growth – it’s nice to see them compare a year’s worth of their work and really acknowledge their challenges and accomplishments.
  3. Keep a paper trail. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been grateful for starting and keeping an email folder for all parent communication. I bcc myself on all communication I send to parents via email and pop it in that folder, along with any replies I get. The result is that I have an excellent, irrefutable record of communication attempts from my end. The few times I’ve needed this paper trail, I was very grateful I had it (for example, when a student in my class was in jeopardy of not graduating because of his results in my class senior year; the paper trail I had from me to his parents was long and extensive, and the administration was able to use it to make the case to the parents that he would have to change radically or not graduate.)
  4. Don’t mistake your role as teacher for friend, family, or savior. It can be tempting to help those students who seem most in need of a support network by befriending them, or trying to “save” them from their problems. I made this mistake early in my career. I had a student who was drawn to me and wanted to talk regularly about her problems, and I – twenty-three and flattered, thinking I could really help her through her tough times – found myself quickly in over my head with a student who had far deeper problems than I was prepared to handle. I realized, humbled, that those deeper psychological or family issues a student has are best left to counseling and mental health professionals. The next time a different young student explained that she felt comfortable around me and wanted to talk with me about some of her problems, I politely explained that I loved being her teacher but that if she needed to talk about her problems, she could make an appointment with the counselors who are better equipped to help her. I still had a nice relationship with this girl, but the boundaries were clear and healthy for both of us. Model your role on that of pediatrician rather than confidante or savior – a professional working toward her students’ educational wellbeing.
  5. Don’t assume students know how to do even the most basic study skills. I still make this mistake. Begin the first weeks by showing them how to do exactly what it is you want them to do – model clearly what it is and don’t just say it. For example, if you want students to annotate in their book, either on the page or by using Post-its, it’s not enough to ask them to do that. Spend time showing them exactly how to do this – putting the notes in the book as you read, saying the many kinds of notes you might write. I came up with an acronym for annotation in HS English: SCRAP-Q to help them try various strategies on their notes (Summary, Connections, Reactions, Predictions, and Questions). Suddenly, they no longer had excuses that they didn’t know what to say, because they had several simple strategies to use. If you want your students to study for vocab quizzes using flash cards, show them how to make the cards and self-quiz using three piles for the words they know cold, the ones they almost always get, and the ones they don’t know yet. If you want them to take bullet-point summary notes of their reading, show them how by practicing it in class. Give them tools that will help them, like Cornell Notes, annotation hows and whys, and how to review in math or language by self-testing a little previous content every night. I often erroneously assume that students know the most basic skills, like reading the dictionary to find a word’s origin or part of speech, and I’m often reminded that they need more direct guidance from us in these simple but important tasks.
  6. Understand that assessment is not the same as grading. It was a ways into my career before I understood the power of this. Much like #1, assessment is a way to measure your students against standards and criteria (yours, your school’s, or the state’s); grading is assigning a value to the assessment outcome. Good teachers assess often by measuring where their students are against standards and criteria and then readjust their teaching based on those assessments. An in-class essay for my grade 9 English class usually comes after several informal writing sessions with verbal feedback, then a practice essay in a timed setting with feedback from me and a grade that doesn’t count, and then the real essay with a grade that counts. Assessing and recording all the data this way has given me far more info on their strengths and weaknesses, and it has shown me that students can improve greatly from one round of assessment with feedback to the next.
  7. If giving a timed assignment, write down the amount of time each student took to complete it on the upper corner when the student submits it to you. I have found that this is helpful feedback when a student has rushed through and done poorly, or when I see that a student always takes the maximum amount of time and still doesn’t finish. It helps me better know and address the students’ challenges in a timed test setting.
  8. Record everything in hard copy in your grade book. I keep track of attendance, all grades, and even all formative assessments (those assessments that are graded but not counted), participation attempts – everything. This helps me greatly with parent-teacher conferences. It helps me see at a glance whose writing is consistently weak, even when it doesn’t count. It helps me see if attendance corresponds with grades, and it shows me how participation links to these elements. I like to code for situations. For example, I will make a “c” in my grade book next to an assignment that wasn’t up to par to note that the student and I chatted about why and how she can do better next time. That way, when I see her poor performance next time, I can check the book and say, “We chatted last time about how you needed to work better on this area, and you still haven’t. Why not?” I code for things like late submissions, excused absences and assignments, difficulty following directions, and when students mostly summarize rather than synthesize (something of increasing importance as they move through high school). This coding helps immensely for comment writing and parent-teacher conferences. In the digital age, this might be redundant for some, but I find that technology is not always foolproof; more than once I have been saved by having my backup hard copy on hand when the tech went down. Either way, keeping clear, consistent records is such a boon to your communication with students and parents.
  9. Make the kids do the work. Six years ago, I was hired by a Harkness school, a high school where students are encouraged (and in fact graded on their ability) to lead class discussions. Essentially, students work in a Socratic seminar environment across the curriculum, and they are expected to participate equally and substantively, exploring their way as a group through the curriculum, while the teacher is mainly silent, working as observer, feedback giver, and guide. Teaching in that Harkness school was the biggest gift I ever received as an educator, and probably the biggest gift my future students could have received. It showed me how, during all the preceding years of my career, I had been spoon-feeding to my students what was most important, what I wanted them to understand. When forced to sit back and watch them work their way – awkwardly at first – together through the material, I saw to my surprise that they were almost always able to discover what was important on their own. Without my interference, students were doing deep, meaningful inquiry together, which resulted in a much more ethical, balanced classroom – a team of players working together with their coach off to the side. Now I come in to my high-school English classes to watch how the students tackle their reading head on in a Spider Web Discussion. I often don’t say a word for an hour as they work through the most salient, pertinent aspects of the texts. I might jump in with a provocative question, or I might redirect them to a passage I think they need to examine and haven’t yet. But often I find they get so good at this practice after only a couple months that I mostly get to go in and enjoy seeing what their astute, curious brains have uncovered. Often they pick up on something I did not, or travel down a fascinating path of ethical debate, back and forth, inspired by their shared inquiry. I’ve learned that they, not I, should do the bulk of the thinking, and that a classroom built on these principles rewards them more in the day-to-day through engaging discussions, and more in the long run by surreptitiously teaching them group problem solving, critical reading and thinking, and public speaking.
  10. Observe Colleagues. The best PD is free and right next door: watch your colleagues teach. It’s easy, painless, and inspires great collaboration through follow-up discussions. At one of the international schools I taught at in Asia, instead of being formally observed by a department head, we were paired up with teaching colleagues in our department and asked to observe each other several times throughout the year and share our feedback with one another. I learned a lot from these sessions, and it was great to see how she interacted with her students. She had a very different approach to assessment than I’d ever seen, and I was only introduced to it because I got to pair up with and observe her. If possible, arrange to see colleagues in other specialties and subject areas as well as colleagues in yours; you’d be amazed what high school teachers can learn from first-grade teachers (multi-tasking anyone?), and math teachers can learn from English teachers (why can’t math class be discussion-based?). It’s also good to have more exposure to the day-to-day reality of our students’ academic careers, from beginning to end and across all subjects, so we can truly start to teach them as if they are in a continuum, not just “in our class this year.”
  11. Use Twitter. I wasn’t sure how to use Twitter to my liking until I decided to make it solely for education and pedagogy purposes. Then I discovered its power. I follow all sorts of interesting education policy wonks, bloggers, teachers, and writers and get dozens of links to great articles every day. There is never a day that goes by when I don’t find something fascinating and completely relevant to my craft in my Twitter feed. I often incorporate them immediately into my classroom, which means Twitter is another totally free, easy way to get great PD. It also is a wonderful communication tool if you’re inclined to share your (140-character) education musings with the world. This can result in interesting collaborations across the medium, such as when someone tweets something like, “Anyone have experience/success using music and math together?” and you reply, “Yes! What do you want to know?”
  12. Get feedback often, from a variety of sources. I was lucky, because early in my career I was introduced to the power of feedback, and I never developed a fear of it as a result. My motto is, “How can I be better?” and feedback has never failed to help me in answering that question.First, solicit feedback regularly from your students. Don’t wait until the end of the course – what a missed opportunity. If your school requires year-end feedback, do it informally on your own. The best way is completely anonymously – via the computer. I found that when I switched from hand-written feedback forms to computer ones, the feedback became a lot more honest, since they were no longer afraid I could recognize their writing. I use Survey Monkey every month to check in with students on how they find the texts, pace, teaching style, class dynamic, and grading. Survey Monkey provides data and graphs that are really convenient; within seconds of students’ finishing, I’ve got a bar graph showing how many of them love the current book and how many would be happy to burn it. And this is the part where I encourage you to steel yourself and ask some uncomfortable questions, like, “Does the teacher play favorites?” I’m always surprised when a small percentage of students respond that they think I do, but it’s valuable feedback; it makes me reconsider how I interact with kids and what they might perceive from those interactions. Much of the feedback on these surveys is reaffirming, too. I was pleasantly surprised to see just how many students reported “loving” English class this year, so sometimes the results just help me know I am on the right track.

    Second, pair up with a colleague, much like the situation I described in point #10. Find a friendly colleague whose feedback you trust and ask if he can observe you two or three times throughout the year and give you general feedback, as well as his observations of any specific areas you’re looking to improve upon. This kind of informal peer observation can be so informative and is much less threatening than having your supervisor observe you.

    Last, get a video camera and film your teaching. Watch it – see what your students see. Watch an hour-long class and chart the level of student interest and engagement; watch how often you call on which students; see how much you talk versus they do; observe how often you write or draw on the board to help deepen a concept. Few people like to see themselves on film, but steel yourself a second time, because there’s much to be learned from self-observation. It’s also an easy way to ease into feedback, since no one else is involved besides you and no one else has to see it.

  13. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Give yourself two or three years to feel like you are treading water. Give yourself five to feel like you can swim. The first couple years of teaching can be nothing short of overwhelming. I remember lots of tears my first year (and second, and fifth…) and many moments when I wanted to leave the profession. But the more experienced I grew, the more I was able to take the long, more patient view. There are many highs and lows in a teacher’s year. The trick is seeing the mountain range, not only the peak or valley before us. Most importantly, don’t get bogged down by what you can’t change. Instead, focus on what you can do and attack it with fervor and love.  

2014 New Year’s Resolutions for Educators

29 Dec

Last year I posted a list of New Year’s teaching resolutions, and here is my list for 2014. Happy New Year!

Ten New Year’s Resolutions for Educators – 2014

1. Check for understanding regularly. While you know how good this and you see how much your students benefit from it (and from your readjusting based on the results), you often let this one slide because “there isn’t enough time.” But if you’re not sure understanding is being achieved, what is the point of “teaching” with that time? Aim to check for understanding at least once every day — through “exit tickets,” informal Q&As, and formative quizzes, essays, and group work.

2. Videotape your class. Take your principal up on this excellent PD challenge so you can see with your own eyes how you move, talk, use time, and interact with your class. It’s an excellent, free, and fairly painless way to grow professionally and get instant feedback on your performance. No one needs to watch it except you!

3. Collaborate regularly. You come away from these sessions energized, often getting great new materials or insights, and you align your grading standards better. The best teachers are thieves, stealing good tricks from one another. Try to collaborate weekly with others teaching your same subject.

4. Start a monthly “edchat” lunch meeting for interested colleagues. Those great education conversations you’ve had recently with the art teacher, the elementary-school homeroom teachers, and the high-school history teachers should continue on a regular basis. Start an informal “edchat” lunch where you all grab a bite at the cafeteria the first Thursday of every month and talk about a specific topic, such as “formative assessment” or “differentiation”; share stories, ideas, questions and insights about the monthly topic.

5. Make time for connecting with students. Remember that you recall almost none of the content that you learned in high school but you remember vividly the personal connections you made with teachers. Show students you care; be firm but kind; give them as much support in and out of class as you can; make sure they understand that — ultimately — knowing things like iambic pentameter and how an author uses metaphors are not nearly as important as knowing how to manage time, sleep, diet, relationships, stress and the pursuit for peace and happiness in one’s own life.

6. Scaffold, scaffold, scaffold. Never overestimate how much students know or understand. Use models regularly to show students examples of great, average, and poor work so that they know the difference, and guide them step-by-step through the process of writing or reading comprehension. Never assume they know how to do anything you haven’t seen them do proficiently entirely on their own. It’s better to take a long time getting comfortable in the shallow end with the basics than to throw them into the deep end and watch them flail.

7. Seek out the expert. When you want to learn something better or from scratch, ask around and find the expert. Seek her out, watch her in action, and ask for her input. For example: you want to learn more about Kagan Structures and how certain teachers at your school are using it to promote cooperative learning, so find the handful of teachers that have become experts at it and ask them to share their knowledge. Don’t be shy!

8. Grade smarter. You have a record number of high-school English students (100+) and you cannot grade the papers of 100 students the way you could those of 50. So grade smarter — utilize peer editing more to your advantage by having students peer edit for the clear-cut, obvious errors that any level of student can find; ask students to have one or more adult readers sign off on their rough drafts before submitting them, asking them to note any errors or confusions as they read; have students read their papers out loud to each other or a family member before submitting to catch those errors that slip by them. In addition, do more formative writing in class in smaller chunks and spot-check this work, catching major errors before students get started on longer drafts and before you have to mark them all up with your comments.

9. Try one crazy curricular idea this year. Take a chance on something a little out of the ordinary — for example, Oedipus the King for ninth grade. The more challenging, sophisticated Greek drama might not work as well as the classic ninth-grade novel Of Mice and Men, but you’ll never know unless you try, and it may just be a hit. And go beyond your comfort zone and traditional models: try that graphic novel you’ve heard so much about with eleventh grade, and experiment with a unit on short stories made into films, giving students a chance to study film for a change.

10. Give students more variety and choice. Let’s not kid ourselves: school and its content are often boring. Giving students more choice in the content, units, or assessment types they have raises the levels of  engagement and learning. Try a “self-directed unit” in which students choose their own genre and texts to study. Allow students to take a graded test in pairs or teams. Let the class vote on which poet you study in the final part of our course. You want students to be invested in the process of their own learning, so engage them in that process more directly.

Three Kinds of Models

30 Nov

I’ve been playing around with using models (a.k.a. exemplars, anchor papers, etc.) for several years now, but more recently I have been using them quite regularly in classroom instruction time.

Here’s a recent example:

After a recent grade 9 unit on poetry, I wanted to give students a summative assessment that assessed their knowledge of poetic devices, reading comprehension, and Schaffer paragraph writing skills, but I wanted to do two of them — one as practice and one that counted.

For the first, practice test, I borrowed a poem and prompt from a past British Columbia Provincial Exam for grade 12 that asked the following:

In paragraph form and with reference to “The Quarter Horse Colts,” discuss how the use of poetic devices reflects the speaker’s attitude toward nature.

When I graded the tests, right away I noticed a difference between the strong ones and the weaker ones; the strong ones all had good or great topic sentences that answered the prompt. The weaker ones for the most part addressed the prompt partially or not all, making the rest of the paragraph fairly hard to write well.

I typed up several model topic sentences from the students’ own tests and placed them back to back. They were:

  1. The use of poetic devices in the poem makes the speaker seem observant and peaceful.
  2. In the poem “The Quarter Horse Colts,” the author uses two main poetic devices, imagery and simile, in order to convey her attitude toward nature.
  3. Huettl uses multiple poetic devices to show how much she enjoys nature.
  4. In the poem, the author uses a variety of literary devices to paint a picture in the reader’s mind.

I beamed up on the projector a paper with the prompt and the four model topic sentences. I told them that their first job when responding to any prompt is to figure out exactly what it’s asking and what must be answered. Together we acknowledged that there were three separate components of this prompt to answer:

  1. the use of poetic devices
  2. the speaker’s attitude
  3. toward nature.

I then asked students in their table groups to decide whether any of them were good topic sentences based on whether or not they answered all three of those components, and to rate them best to worst.

Right away, students saw that numbers 1 and 4 were the weakest, because they didn’t answer the prompt. There was some good debate over answers 2 and 3, and most agreed that 2 was the best, but that the best option of all would be a combination of 2 and 3, one that read:

In the poem “The Quarter Horse Colts,” the author uses two main poetic devices, imagery and simile, in order to convey her joyful, positive attitude toward nature.

Even better was when I asked what was the difference between a strong topic sentence and a weak one, and the students themselves volunteered comments like, “The first one isn’t specific enough,” and “Number 2 is much more detailed.” These are the kinds of comments I write ad nauseum on their papers but they never seem to be able to transfer that kind of understanding of the comment to the next assessment in order to do better.

To top it off, I shared a sample “excellent” paragraph with them and went through it piece by piece to see how it followed the Schaffer model.

I gave the exact same style of test a week later but with a different poem and prompt. Out of 29 ninth graders, 23 students raised their grade from the practice test to the graded test; two stayed the same, three went down by one point out of 20 and one went down by two points. The best part was that 12 students with Cs and Ds on the practice test went on to get Bs and As on the graded one.

Using models of high, average, and low quality and then asking students to grade or rank them and explain why is helpful in getting students to see the difference between being effective and being off the mark — something they don’t understand instinctively, even with feedback.

And if you worry you don’t have class time because there is too much else to do, don’t. The topic sentence workshop took all of 15 minutes of class time, and it saved me hours of grading and extra-help time, as students largely did much better on the final test.

How Going Paperless Leads to an A-ha Moment on Goals

9 Nov

I introduced SPIDER Web Discussion to my ninth-grade English students this past week and learned an important lesson about the transparency of goals. 

The first thing I do when beginning with SPIDER Web Discussion in a new class is show them a short video of the method in action from a former classroom of mine. It shows a fairly sophisticated, ethical ninth-grade discussion on Romeo and Juliet. In one of my classes this past week, when the video ended, I pointed to the screen and said: “That is the goal.” Most students nodded, but one girl remarked, wide-eyed and droll, “I think I’m actually going to have to read the books this year.” She realized that the students had to be intimately familiar with the text and truly engaged with it to maintain the group discussion well. I find the model of the video very helpful in showing students clear goals early on — before we begin. “This is what we’re aiming for,” I encourage them. But I am quick to add that the video was filmed in April of that school year; it shows nearly a year of progress with SPIDER Web Discussion. The discussion looked nothing like that in September of that year.

In addition to the video model, I hand out the rubric before students begin discussing, and we cover the handful of requirements students must all do if they want a collective A (there is one group grade given for SWD in my class). However, my new school is trying to go paperless and we have very tight budgets and individual tracking for printing and copying. Since we have SMART Boards in our classrooms, a 1:1 device set-up, and Moodle and Google Drive for all document posting and sharing, I have found that I almost never print and copy anything anymore (hooray for the trees!) This past week was the first time I didn’t hand out a hard copy of the rubric and simply left it up on the SMART board throughout the duration of the class discussion. I worried a little that their not having their own copy would prevent them from getting as familiar with the criteria, but I convinced myself that it was better to save the paper.

During the first discussion, one particular group of ninth graders were discussing the short story “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson. There was a lively and thoughtful exchange of ideas — better than most first days. Several students were responding to a sincere question from the girl who had suggested she might actually have to read the books this year; she asked what the point of the story was, and a few students were wrestling with the idea that the story was about blindly following tradition. Just then, one usually quiet girl looked up at the board and remarked, “One of the things on the rubric says that we should ‘take risks and dig for deep meaning.’ I’m going to take a risk and ask if maybe this whole story is about life and death and is a symbol of that struggle. In the beginning, the story starts innocently and happily, and then it gets darker and more tense, and then it ends suddenly with the woman’s death. Perhaps the story is symbolizing that life cycle — we are born innocent children, then we lose that innocence as we get older, and then we die — we all die.”

The class sat for a few beats in silence and one of her classmates replied, “That was so deep I need a minute.” Everyone laughed, but then students began trading ideas back and forth, sharing portions of the text that supported this new way of looking at it, and growing excited about her interpretation.

I was impressed with the unique interpretation, whether I ultimately agree or not, but I was far more impressed by what seemed to be at work behind it: she had consciously used the rubric up on the board to check herself (and her peers) against a discussion goal, and she had consciously pushed herself to higher-level thinking based on that goal.

Maybe it was a fluke, but perhaps there is something to making the stated goals even that much clearer; I had always assumed that handing out the paper copies would keep students more hooked into the criteria, but the board is something that commands their attention more forcefully — it’s up at the front of the room, lighted up, and larger than life. Maybe physically representing the goals this way was key into their being used more thoughtfully.

I will keep projecting the rubric for the time being and note whether students are audibly referencing the criteria and engaging more actively in self-assessment. I suspect they just might.

How do you share goals or make them explicit? I would love more ideas.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

2 Nov

It’s been a very hectic start to the school year and I’m just now (in November!) feeling like I am starting to get a handle on my new students and their abilities.

First, a little background (feel free to skip ahead to “The Point”):

My new school uses the Jane Schaffer Writing Program to teach students a kind of template for writing coherent paragraphs. Being the free spirit that I am, in my younger years I really chaffed at using a formulaic approach to teaching anything, especially writing. But over the years I have really seen the error of my ways and I think that clear, practical, guided formulaic approaches for certain tasks (how to structure a cogent paragraph, for example) is a huge boon to teaching and learning. It takes the mystery out of something as seemingly esoteric as writing.

In a nutshell, Schaffer (who was a classroom teacher looking for a way to remedy those consistently muddy, choppy papers her students wrote) devised a system of paragraphing that asks students to create a kind of “sandwich” paragraph. The pieces of bread are the topic and concluding sentences, and in between there is always a concrete detail (a specific example or quote) followed by commentary that analyzes or expands upon that concrete detail. There may be one “chunk” of concrete detail + commentary, or there might be three “chunks” — three quotes, say, supporting the topic sentence’s point, each followed by the commentary that elaborates on them and puts them into context. Schaffer suggest color coding them all for ease and learning: topic and concluding sentences are blue; concrete details are red; commentary is green. This helps students visualize how much of each component they have and the order in which they come.

I encourage you to learn more if you are interested, as I have already noticed a real improvement not only in the structure and organization of writing, but also in how easy it is suddenly to pinpoint exactly what is wrong with a student’s writing. Especially using the color coding, I can tell right away that the student has labeled her commentary as a topic sentence (blue), even though it is acting as commentary and not a topic, which will hinder the whole paragraph. It’s an easy thing to explain and an easy thing to fix with the Schaffer formula, because the student herself sees it. Or at a glance, we both see that the concrete detail is three lines of red, but the commentary is only one line of green, and that this feels insufficient. The reader needs more explanation, given such a long example.

The Point (Models!):

As much as I have really benefitted from using Schaffer’s model in my teaching this year (and I’m only just beginning to experiment with it), it’s clearer than ever to me that we in education — especially those of us who teach high school and college — need to use more models (a.k.a. exemplars, anchor papers, etc.)

I have used a specific kind of dialectical journal in my courses for years now, and one of the frustrating components of them was to try to show students how to write their responses to quoted text in a way that was sufficient in depth. Usually this was through trial and error. They wrote some responses, I gave a few rounds of feedback and practice grades, and then most of them started to get the hang of it.

But it was a longer and clumsier process than I liked, so after a few years, I began to use models. I showed students several examples of Dialectical Journals before they started and while they were working on them, showing them the level of depth I expected in each entry and the lack of depth in entries from journals that had received poor grades. This helped many students, but I still think it’s a bit of a stretch for many of the weaker ones, as they find it hard to transfer what looks good/bad in another student’s journal on another text entirely to their own work.

In fact, last week I received the first round of journal entries, and half of them remained vague and lacking specifics. Students wrote things like, “The author uses great diction.” This is a student attempting to sound like he knows what he is talking about, but he isn’t actually saying anything at all. There is no real analysis there, just the appearance of it. And it doesn’t help to tell students to not just comment on the use of diction but to discuss its effect, because half of the journals came in with analyses like this: “The effect of the diction used is to interest the reader.” Students are trying to “analyze” without understanding what analysis actually means. Many think that if they mention a few key words, like diction, and express some vague notion about how that might possibly impact the reader, then they have done their job, but this is an error in their understanding of what analysis actually means.

So I had an idea: I would directly model a “good” analysis of a quote and a “bad and ugly” analysis of a quote.

Inspired by a colleague who had adapted the Schaffer approach to her students’ journals, I typed up an assignment sheet and model journal entry (found here: MbS – Schaffer Dialectical Journal Assignment and Model) that asked students to quote the text in red (like a concrete detail) and analyze it in two different color greens (like commentary) — one commentary for noting author style, and the other for furthering the analysis by focusing on the effects of that style. I added a space at the beginning of the entry for students to have a personal reaction/connection to the text, based on some reading by Harvey/Gouvdis that encouraged me to ask students to create more connections to the text for better comprehension and interest. I had them mark this purple just to distinguish it as separate from the Schaffer model.

But here’s the kicker: I decided to show them in real time exactly what I wanted from them and what I didn’t. On the spot, I asked anyone in my large grade-12 class to give me one of their quotes from their journals. Jamal volunteered his and I wrote it on the lefthand column and cited it correctly.

“O that this too too solid flesh would melt/

Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!/

Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d/

His canon ’gainst self-slaughter! O God! O God!/

How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable/

Seem to me all the uses of this world!” (I.ii.131-61)

I reminded them how to do it correctly according to MLA, and I heard a few “Ohs” around the room — a helpful check that not all of them knew how, even by senior year, something I had falsely assumed. I then proceeded to type my “good” purple response (RESPONSE in the journal model I use).

The good: Hamlet speaking here. Poor Hamlet. He’s so low that he contemplates suicide. This reminds me of the two young men I know from the past three years that killed themselves. Why is suicide more likely in men than in women? I feel Hamlet’s teenage angst here deeply; I remember being 18 and feeling like the world didn’t make sense and that my parents were only making things worse not better – so I empathize with him here.

We read it and then I typed this “bad and ugly” one up right below it:

The bad and the ugly: There is a lot of emotion here, which makes a big impact on me. I really feel the intensity here.

And here, I believe, is the key: I didn’t tell them what the difference was, I just asked. Immediately half the seniors said aloud, “It’s not specific.” I was thrilled — they could see it.

We continued on to the first green commentary/analysis (ANALYZE in my model):

The good: Hamlet emphasizes his angst here through repetition and the theme of doubt. Hamlet wishes he could commit suicide but what stops him? The threat of permanent purgatory/punishment for the sin of suicide – “the Everlasting.” This introduces the dual idea of good/evil and life/death (suicide). Shakespeare uses vivid imagery and diction – “flesh” “melting” and “thawing” to describe his emotions. These are all words related to temperature – hot and cold. Normally they would describe objects, like ice or a cadaver.

and then…

The bad and the ugly: The author uses a lot of vivid imagery and diction. It has a powerful effect.

What was the difference here? Again, students noted the lack of specificity. But others noted the length, and we discussed how much space strong analysis usually takes. Another student noted that there are specific quotes within the “good” commentary for the ANALYZE portion, and we talked more about how helpful it is to be as specific as possible, even re-quoting material, to get one’s point across clearly.

Lastly, I wrote the EVALUATE portion of the commentary in another shade of green:

The good: Hamlet comes across as a little dramatic – are we meant to see him as overdramatic? Or are we meant to empathize with him? The vivid imagery and diction – melting flesh – almost repels or disgusts the reader. It’s gross to imagine flesh “melting” or rotting (connection to theme of decay/rottenness!), as if our bodies were only objects and not really living things. Is Shakespeare suggesting that suicide is revolting? Or that life is revolting? I think Hamlet comes across as sympathetic here and that, ultimately, Shakespeare aims for that, because he is using the repetition of “O God! O God” to show that Hamlet is having a crisis of conscience – life has becomes so unbearable and depressing that he would prefer not to live it, but he cannot end it because he will go to hell. Is that not a kind of hell itself? Is Shakespeare suggesting as much — that life itself is hell? It certainly seems to be so in Hamlet’s circumstances – his father dead, murdered, his uncle married to his mother, and the family plotting behind his back. Hamlet – impotent and (acting) mad.


The bad and the ugly: The effect of the vivid diction and imagery is to create a powerful impact. The result is it draws the reader in.

Again I solicited answers on how the entries differed, and again students noted length, specificity, and how much depth of analysis was in the first. There are also connections to larger themes noted in the “good” example, something that I’m working on improving in my students currently (synthesis, big-picture thinking).

Once I had shown my “good” and “bad and ugly” models, there seemed to be far less confusion around the purpose and effort required for the journals. I had grown tired of reading  the kinds of entries that would have been labeled “ugly” for their lack of specificity, depth, or length.

This is just the beginning — I have not yet received the second round of journal entries and look forward to seeing if they were able to transfer their knowledge from this model to their own work or not — I’ll keep you posted. But I think, once again, the power of modeling work for them is invaluable. I saw immediately afterward, when checking and revising entries with students one-on-one, that their understanding had grown. Nadir saw immediately that his analysis was about as long as his quote, and it was not very thorough. He was able to verbalize on his own that he hadn’t yet done enough and was going back to revise.

I encourage you to model “good” and “poor” answers/responses/work in real time, so they can see you interacting with the text, offer feedback, and respond to your questions about how the models are different. I did sense that there was something especially effective in engaging them in the process of modeling and not just showing them the models on pieces of paper — there were more “a-ha moments” on their faces.

Share any ways that you have been using models — I am always looking to steal good tricks, and I believe in the power of models — the good, the bad and the ugly.

Be Better: Change Is Good

31 May

I’ve been working on an interesting consulting project for the IB, and part of that work has been taking a look at different instructional strategies.

Those of us who teach high school and college can easily fall into the trap of using the same instructional strategy over and over again. When I was a student, the most common approach I saw from teachers was lecture, or what I called “Death by Lecture.” Today I think we’d have a new winner: “Death by PowerPoint.” Lecture and PowerPoint may have their place, but all too often teachers use them as the backbone of their instruction. It begs the question: why come to school at all? Couldn’t the teacher just email the students the lecture notes or the PowerPoint and call it a day?

But those of us who fancy ourselves creative and innovative, using methods like Socratic seminar, lit circles, or case studies, to enhance learning shouldn’t be so quick to pat ourselves on the back. And even at middle and elementary levels, we can have our crutch approaches. I’ll be the first to admit that I abhor lecture and tend to shy away from it as a teacher. I feel false and incongruous — a square peg in a round hole — when I lecture to my students. I’m at ease and confident when I’m directing SPIDER Web Discussions, one-on-one assessment and feedback, and think-pair-share work, but I really eschew lecture (and I don’t think I’ve ever give more than two PowerPoint presentations to students in my whole life!) because it puts me far outside my comfort zone.

Bad teacher. Haven’t I learned that being outside my comfort zone is often where the best learning gets done, both the students’ and mine? Apparently, no. So I’ll keep trying. Recently, a colleague expressed surprise and a little alarm that I use SPIDER Web Discussion so often, but I brushed it off as just one person’s reaction. But I had to stop and pay more attention when a couple students gave me some anonymous feedback via my Survey Monkey surveys, saying that they would like more direct instruction or lecture from time to time. They were spinning their wheels without my specific, structured lead. So I had to buck up and give it a go. And the interesting thing was, as I delivered my lecture on Walt Whitman’s poem “Song of Myself,” that I remembered how fun it was. I actually enjoyed the few lectures I gave on a series of challenging poems that the students struggled with on their own. And I believe they really benefited from it, too, able to see through the poem once I had opened the door to its nuances. Too much of anything is never a good thing, and I realized that I had been leaning too heavily on a few tried and true pedagogical approaches, writing off others as useless when, in fact, they weren’t.

So here’s a way to be better this month as another school year comes to a close: mix it up. If you always do lecture, try a few debates and a SPDIER Web Discussion. If you always favor large-group discussions, cluster the students and ask them to work in pairs or teams. If you fear you might be a Death by PowerPoint teacher, flip the roles — give students the PowerPoint notes and then ask them to make the quiz/test for that unit and to try to stump you and your colleagues when you take it.

Here is a nice comprehensive list of instructional strategies I came across in my research this week — print it out and keep it nearby as you finish classes this year and start your planning for next year over the summer. Choose a few that are new to you or even a bit scary and commit to trying them. Change is good — for the students and the teachers.

Be Better: An IB Model for All Education

28 Apr

I’m in full-on end-of-the-year mode, and this year I’m also an IB examiner for the first time. What that means is that I’m assessing work from IB students from schools all over the world against set criteria established by the IB. For example, IB students in my course, IB English A: Literature, will take two comprehensive exams next week with tens of thousands of other students, who will take the same exam in their schools on the same day. Those exams will then be sent off to teachers around the globe who are “examiners,” grading the exams against the standard criteria the IB sets for all courses. While grading is always subjective, the criteria is fixed; what is a 5/5 in my school is exactly what is a 5/5 in every other IB school around the world.

While the IB’s 60,000+ candidate students around the world is a small population compared to, say, the whole population of American public school students, I think they have a good lesson to offer on a simple scale: Have clear, simple criteria for each major assessment at course/grade level against which all teachers and students can assess. And then assess against them in multiple ways. The IB model has some assessments made by the teacher, with a sample externally moderated (re-assessed by someone outside the school) to check for consistency. Grades are usually changed, and feedback to the teacher is given on how to align more closely with the IB criteria next time. The IB model also asks examiners to assess all exams without any prior knowledge of the students they are examining — it is only their exams they are evaluating against the set criteria. While this isn’t a perfect system, it does ensure a consistent standard worldwide — a 7 (IB’s top score) is a 7, whether that student is in Alabama or Bangalore, public or private.

The best-run schools have moderation teams themselves; I was lucky to be part of one in Qatar, where we moderated student work on a near-weekly basis. Any time a student felt a grade was unfair, we simply brought it to the moderating team to check for alignment. If the team agreed with the teacher’s grade (or thought it was too generous, even), then the student accepted the grade much more easily. If the team agreed with the student, the grade was changed.

But any school or team of teachers could take a tip from this style of assessment and moderation promoted by the IB and adopt some of its practices in-house. A few ideas:

1. A team of seventh-grade language arts teachers might decide to give a cornerstone assessment of a persuasive essay. With a clear rubric outlining the criteria, they assign the assessment, designing backward from the criteria. Teachers then assess their students and then the team leader or department head selects a random sample from each teacher, that is then anonymously graded by another teacher or two in the group. Seeing how closely the grades align among teachers assessing the same work is a wonderful PD exercise in and of itself, not to mention the benefits for students.

2. Schools in which teachers teach the same content and assessments across courses or grade levels could divide up grading large assessments randomly, so that a teacher in that system is sometimes grading her own students and often times grading other teachers’ students. Of course, this only works if it’s designed like the IB — criteria are set and all teachers are teaching to that criteria.

3. Individual teachers wishing for more alignment and feedback can pair up as feedback partners. Two Spanish or history teachers might pair up and grade a select sample of each other’s assessments. Where they don’t align or agree on their grading, they could talk it through and take any discrepancies to the department head, team leader, or principal for further feedback. 

4. Try this with students — students “moderate” anonymous papers or class presentations in teams using a clear, definitive rubric, with a majority rules approach. It’s a wonderful exercise in helping students see the standards themselves. It can also be quite instructive for teachers to see when students all think something is “good” or “bad” that the teacher disagrees with. Often this is due to a misunderstanding on the students’ parts that the teacher might not normally catch.

The key, of course, is that the criteria needs to be agreed upon and bought into at the top. I don’t have any say in what the IB should assess on its Individual Oral Commentary, the assessment I’m moderating this month. I might like to assess them more on their knowledge of the poem extract they are explicating than on their language use, but I don’t have that authority. It is not an exercise in finding the prefect criteria or the best rubric. It’s an exercise in aligning standards and using those results to good effect, perhaps for modifying the criteria to make it better.

And a word of caution about rubrics — it’s easy to confuse rubrics with grading scales. The six-traits model, for example, is a wonderful assessment tool but it’s often used as a numerical rubric that churns out a grade based on a percentage x/36 = y%. In my opinion, this is not an effective use of an otherwise solid method. Like the IB, teachers can decide a range (a/36 – b/36 = A; c/36 – f/36 = A-; etc.) or some other method for turning the rubric into a numerical grade. Straight percentages drawn from rubrics are often too harsh in my experience.

Share some of your experience with this style of moderation below in the comments section — would love to hear any ideas on how this has been successfully done in your school. And go ahead and give it a try and see what kinds of interesting conversations come up.

Spider Web FAQs

31 Mar

A fan of Spider Web Discussion recently asked me some questions about the nuances of the method, and he suggested I start a FAQs page. Excellent idea. I find that I am asked many of the same questions again and again through workshops, email, and Twitter, so it makes great sense to have one place where all those questions can be directed.

So here are the FAQs for Spider Web Discussion. If you have others, please post them below and I’ll try to answer them.

1. How long do you do Spider Web Discussion for in any given class period?

It depends on the age group and how new it is to them. I teach high school; with a ninth grade class new to SWD, I’d start with something like 30 minutes. With my high-level twelfth-grade IB class, we can easily do over an hour and it’s still lively. With a lower-elementary class, I’d start with something like 10 minutes. As you use SWD more, you’ll get a feel for the “right” amount of time. With most of my high-school students, that’s something like 45 minutes to an hour by the spring term.

2. How do you know when the discussion is over?

I try to set a time (see above), but sometimes the discussion is just getting rolling to really good places when the time is up. If that’s the case, I let it go. My number-one goal is clear: to have a great, deep, productive and collaborative discussion. I wouldn’t let time stand in the way of that just because the buzzer has sounded.

3. What percentage of your class time overall do you spend on Spider Web Discussion?

In my classes, I’d say the total time spent on SWD is somewhere between 40 – 80%. When we study a text in English class, whether it be reading Macbeth or watching The Truman Show, my preferred method for discussing the texts is Spider Web Discussion. I have seen the power of pushing students to do the heavy lifting themselves, and I love how SWD encourages and requires that. There are times, though, when some lecture is required or desired, or when small-group work makes the most sense. When we are working on writing projects, I’m often giving direct instruction and then coming around to do one-on-one feedback with each student on her essay. SWD is one tool in my toolbox for teaching. However, it is my main go-to tool for discussion. If we are talking about discussion, I’d say I use SWD 95% of the time.

4. How much should the teacher speak during Spider Web Discussions?

I try to speak as little as possible. In the beginning, I try to say nothing at all. I learned early on not to save students from their uncomfortable silence, and I even try not to make eye contact. I take notes or pretend to take notes, but I want them to know it’s their job to save the ship from sinking. As students get very good at SWD, though, and it’s clear they are working together productively and don’t “need” me anymore, then I might jump in more often than before to probe and provoke them to even deeper, newer ways of thinking. By April in my higher-level classes (my grades 11 and 12s), I might speak as much as any student in the class, acting more as an equal member of the discussion rather than observer or leader.

A good rule of thumb is to hold off from participating at all in the beginning weeks and months, until they are absolutely comfortable with the independence required of them. Then you can jump in now and then, more and more, without the worry that they’ll look to you as the leader. And keep them on their toes — every now and then with my upper-level classes, I won’t say anything at all just to make sure they don’t rely on me too much again.

5. Should you speak up if the students are going down a path of misinformation or saying things that are just plain wrong?

Yes — but wait a few minutes before doing so. The number-one goal is to have to have a great, deep, productive and collaborative discussion. Let’s say my ninth-grade students are reading Romeo and Juliet. One student during the discussion begins to talk about Juliet, asleep and pretending to be dead in her family tomb, as truly dead because he has misunderstood the text. I would not interrupt the discussion to correct him. I’d watch to see if another student corrects him. I see that a couple other students had the same misunderstanding — several of them believe Juliet is truly dead. They begin to talk about the play based on this erroneous belief, and their discussion becomes counter-productive. I must interrupt to correct them. The goal is clear: to have a great, deep, collaborative discussion. The discussion will not be those things if they continue down this incorrect path. I will push them to confront the inaccuracy or lead them to the passage that clearly shows the true understanding, and then I’ll go back to observing.

I do find, though, that this is rare. More often than not, if I wait those first few minutes, other students will correct the students who misunderstood, and I make a point to encourage that behavior during the debriefing process. I think it’s a very crucial life skill to learn how to question, evaluate, and correct others in group work.

6. What happens if you can’t count the grades in your particular school or system?

Then don’t. But you can still assign a grade to each discussion, even if it never goes into the students GPAs. I’ve worked in schools where the grades counted; I’ve worked in schools where they didn’t. It doesn’t really matter. I don’t usually advertise to students when they don’t count — I think it helps to keep them thinking they do.

7. What if nobody’s talking?

Enjoy the silence. Eventually, someone will talk. Sometimes students will get very frustrated and chide their peers. Sometimes there is very awkward laughter or long stretches of silence. This usually happens with a particularly shy group. I make an effort to deal with this by never speaking up during the discussion (then they know I won’t ever save them and they’ll have to save themselves), but I address it very openly during the debriefing by talking about how uncomfortable that was, but they got through it, etc. I’ve never had it be a big impediment to SWD; they usually get over that hump pretty early.

8. This is great for high school English or social studies students, but I teach math/science/language/elementary. This can’t be done in those courses/levels, can it?

Well, Phillips Exeter, one of the best schools in the U.S., would argue that it can especially be done in math and science. Their entire school is built on this model of inquiry, and the math department has spent thirty years honing their program. They have no textbooks and the math faculty write and revise the math curriculum problem sets every year. The students work collaboratively through the problem sets, which are scaffolded for deeper and deeper understanding, solving and self-correcting as they go. A Q&A with Exeter’s math department head can be read here, and their web site with problem sets can be found here:

Language teachers I’ve presented to have been some of the biggest fans of the method. I’ve heard from French, Spanish, Mandarin and Thai teachers who have tried and loved using SWD in the classroom. There is a rubric for SWD adapted to MS/HS language teaching here on my wiki:

Elementary students have their own unique needs with SWD, but I have seen it done successfully at lower elementary grades. Elementary teachers who have tried it report great excitement at the results; many tell me they didn’t realize their students had the ability to be so thoughtful, empathic, and independent, especially the weaker students in their classes. There is a rubric for younger students here:

The last thing I’d say on this topic is something I stress in my workshops: the world is not looking for good takers of dictation. The world is looking for problem solvers, inquirers, and collaborators. A scientist that only knows how to take notes is badly prepared for the real world. I have a deep belief that STEM subjects are the subjects best suited to Spider Web Discussion but that most STEM teachers just don’t know it yet.

I’d ask any teacher of any subject or age to give it a try and see if they don’t gain something from it.

9. Do you really not speak during the discussion even with younger students? If so, do you find you need to assign roles to get them started or to model in anyway what you want them to do?

I really don’t speak; not much, anyway. It’s such a relief to have them do the thinking and talking for once. And they are so good at it! I have started experimenting with roles this year. Here is some information on how I use them:

I often show them footage of Spider Web in the classroom (see below) as a model for what I want them to achieve before they try it for the first time. It sets the bar high, but I think it’s helpful for them to see a model of excellence first.

10. How do you give individual students feedback on their performance?

Most of the feedback I currently give comes in the discussion debriefing, during the five – ten minutes afterward when we talk about how it went. I give specific feedback there: “Michael, excellent questions today. Why did you guys not answer them? Michael had some of the best questions we’ve heard on this text, but you guys were too distracted by your own comments and waiting to speak to really hear them. How can we do better on that next time?” And “Jack, see how Rachel was able to speak up and give us that great insight because you asked her for her thoughts? When you speak less, it allows space for more ideas to come through, and we all gain.” And “Reshma, we still haven’t heard from you yet. What can we do about that? How about you start the next discussion with a good question. Bring one to class to start us off.”

I haven’t done much else with the individual feedback on each student except include some of it in report card comments. I do use the information myself to help me grasp a student’s strengths and weaknesses and how I might target them. I’m open to other uses for the feedback that I haven’t yet considered.

11. I need more structure and scaffolding for my students at the beginning of introducing Spider Web Discussion. Any tips?

At the high school level, and easily adapted for lower grades, I use Level Questions. I picked these up along the way from veteran teachers in my early teaching years and they have served me well. They are in an English literature context, but you can adapt them to fit your teaching needs.

Level 1 – Plot-based, factual question with a definitive answer (e.g. Is Romeo in love with Juliet at the beginning of the play, or another girl?)

Level 2 – Debatable. Deeper question about the text (e.g. Are Romeo and Juliet in love or in lust?)

Level 3 – Big, global questions inspired by the topic/text but not specifically mentioning it (e.g. Do teenagers know what’s better for them than their parents do?)

Level 4 – Author style questions — they take a step back from content and themes and ask us to think about craft and what tools the writer used to influence the reader (e.g. Based on the play, what does Shakespeare think about love matches? How do we know?)

I ask students to prepare for class by doing the reading and writing down three or four level questions every night. I have them focus on levels 2 – 4, since level 1 is usually less helpful by high school. Sometimes I’ll ask students to start with a question; in the past I’ve had students come in and put their best question on the board, and then students decide which one they want to start with to open discussion. It requires engaging with the text before class and it helps students develop their question-asking skills. It can be less threatening for students to begin or sustain discussion with level questions in front of them.

12. Where can I find all your documents about Spider Web, including sample rubrics, video, Spider Web maps, etc.?

Here on my wiki:

Please note you do not need to request access. Everything is available without access — just click away. That pesky “request access” button in the corner is a red herring.

13. Where can I see an example of Spider Web Discussion in action?

Here’s a video of my ninth-grade students using an early version of SWD:

14. How much coding should I be doing? What if I can’t keep up with it because I’m listening to the conversation and taking notes?

I don’t worry too much about this. Some days I code; other days I listen and participate more intentionally. The coding is an extra layer of feedback, but it’s not the heart of the method. If it’s too hard for you to do the coding while you listen, don’t code. Or just code for a few key things you want to observe.

15. I have more than 20 students in a class. How can I try Spider Web with them in a meaningful way?

It’s hard to have a good discussion with more than 20 students. I’ve done it, but it’s challenging. One alternative is to split the class into two groups — an outer circle and an inner one. The inner one discusses and the outer one observes, or even takes notes and gives feedback in a 1:1 pairing. Then they switch. I have also split the class into two circles discussing simultaneously, and I’m bouncing back and forth between them. This requires some autonomy on their part and flexibility on mine (i.e. not a good time to code), but it can work well in shier, more reticent groups, since they are less self-conscious in smaller numbers and with fewer people watching them.

16. I don’t know where to start. I want to try this in my class but don’t know the first step to take. Can you suggest one?

Yes. I have a short document for how to start in a step-by-step process here:

17. Do you offer on-site or web-based training for teachers and schools interested in implementing Spider Web Discussion?

Yes. I have a busy schedule full of teaching, writing, and presenting but I love to work with educators and schools interested in developing SWD in their classrooms. Send me an email: alexiswiggins [at] gmail [dot] com.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 619 other followers