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.

http://dms.demingps.org/UserFiles/Servers/Server_939760/File/documents/School%20Information/Instructional%20Strategies%20List.pdf

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 http://alexiswiggins.pbworks.com/w/file/59054896/Q%26ADiscussionBasedLearningMath.docx, and their web site with problem sets can be found here: http://www.exeter.edu/academics/72_6539.aspx

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: http://alexiswiggins.pbworks.com/w/file/59477629/Spider%20Web%20Discussion%20in%20Spanish%203.docx

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: http://alexiswiggins.pbworks.com/w/file/59054791/SPIDER%20Web%20Elementary%20Rubric.docx

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: http://alexiswiggins.pbworks.com/w/file/64739410/SPIDER%20Web%20Roles.docx

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: http://alexiswiggins.pbworks.com

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: http://www.authenticeducation.org/alexis/

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: http://alexiswiggins.pbworks.com/w/file/59054723/SPIDER%20Web%20Discussion%20Over%20a%20Year.docx

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.

Be Better: The Nightmare Student

19 Mar

Shortly after having my first child (one of those legendary babies that never slept, ate every two hours, and fussed all the time) I was at my wits end and came across a book on my husband’s bookshelf called A Path with Heart by Jack Kornfield. Sometimes the right book has the way of finding you at the perfect moment, and A Path with Heart was one of these books – a reminder that I wasn’t really losing my mind as a frazzled new mother.

There was one particular passage in the book in which Kornfield talks about challenges, those small, daily challenges that undo us one little knot at a time – the baby spitting up on your clothes just as you’re about to walk out the door; the colleague that snips at you unfairly; that parent email with a certain tone questioning how you handled an incident with her child the other day; the cable guy not showing up after you got off work early and waited for two hours. Kornfield, a Buddhist monk by training, suggests an activity to his reader: For one whole day, imagine that everyone and everything you encounter is your own teacher, a personal “buddha,” existing only for you and your own growth. Whatever you get – no matter how terrible – Kornfield suggests treating that person or experience as a teacher giving you the lesson you most need in that exact moment. Basically, he asks you to imagine every moment of one day as an opportunity.

I tried this for one day, and I experienced a radical shift. I had been very focused on the exhausting demands of new motherhood and what a difficult time I was having with it. On the “buddha day,” however, I saw my son not as a crying, anxious, insatiable being who sapped all my energy but as an opportunity to cultivate patience. And I realized, almost lightheartedly, that I really needed that. I have never been a patient person, and here was this beautiful six-month-old baby boy requiring massive amounts of my patience every day. He was a teacher and I hadn’t realized it. And suddenly all around, I realized the world was full of “buddhas.” The difficult co-worker or parent, the shoddy customer service, the bad weather – all of them seemed somehow new and full of opportunity for learning. That day I began to see them not as impediments to my good day, ruining it in small doses here or there. I actually began to welcome these “negative” interactions all day long and find a kind of humor and lightheartedness in them. If the grocery store cashier was rude, I simply took it as a chance to practice my kindness and make it my own private game to see if I could charm her. If the truck splashed the muddy puddle onto my clean pants, I just laughed to myself, my own private joke, and thought: “That’s interesting. Another opportunity to be patient today. I guess I’ll go back up to my apartment and change.” I admit that I only tried it consciously for one full day, but it was very powerful, and I haven’t looked at the world, or my role in it, quite the same way since.

“What does this have to do with education, Alexis?” you ask.

I’ll tell you. I’ve been thinking about this “buddha” activity lately in the context of teaching. I think we teachers make the mistake too often of taking things too personally, starting with our students. I’m the queen of this. I recall being unable to sleep some nights because I’d be so irked about what a student had done or said in a discussion. Let’s be honest – there are those students that just get under our skin, the ones who really push buttons, challenge authority, challenge our lessons and assignments, act as if they are just daring us to disagree with them.

I’ll be even more honest: for most of my career as a teacher, these students – usually male – drove me crazy. I put on a brave face, but I absolutely loathed having these boys in my class, challenging me (a young, female teacher). I really just wanted those students to go away.

But they never do just go away – buddhas rarely do. And perhaps it was having two very challenging, energetic, and mischievous little boys of my own that helped me understand this lesson as well. But recently I began to embrace the student that is my worst nightmare and welcome him or her into the fold. A perfect example is my student Jack from a few years ago, a student who monopolized the discussions, who loved to shout down everyone else, who relished saying things that would provoke his classmates or me (“feminists are whiny”). Before I would have agonized over having Jack in my class and felt that he was ruining the whole thing.

But after reading A Path with Heart, I began to look at Jack as an opportunity to do two things: to ask myself what it is that I most needed to learn as an educator right then and to reach out to a kid that was not expecting it because he worked hard to push others away.

The results were very interesting. On further reflection, I found that I needed to be a more inclusive educator, inviting many different kinds of voices, experiences, and critiques to the table. I wasn’t always good about that, crusader that I was for certain values. Jack taught me that. And I also found that when I reached out to students like Jack and made them feel welcome – included not defensive, observant not contrarian – something unexpected happened: the Jacks of the world became my favorite students. How had I never noticed that they were so insightful? So honest? So creative? And as I responded more warmly to their questioning nature, they, too softened and became more open and engaged.

And there was something else that I noticed: those Jacks from my past that I thought of as my nemeses in my early years had grown up and were the former students of mine that were doing by far the most interesting things: living halfway around the world, getting PhDs, starting businesses. It’s never the docile parrots that change the world, is it? Why, I had to ask myself, had I been trying to encourage students to question everything and then recoiling when they tried to question me?

So thanks to Jack Kornfield (another “Jack”) for teaching me that we sometimes need to embrace our nightmare scenarios if only to see that what can seem like a menace is really just an opportunity. Your least favorite student (or parent, or colleague…) may just be your greatest teacher yet.

Try the “buddha” challenge for one day at school this week and see what happens.

Be Better: Spider Web Discussion and How to Deal with Superstars and Shy Kids

3 Mar

In my last post I gave a brief overview of SPIDER Web discussion and what a great tool it’s been for me and many other teachers I know, and I encouraged you to give it a try.

And when you try it out, inevitably a lot of questions arise. Here are the ones that come up the most:

1. How much do I stay silent?

2. Should I get involved and correct them if they are sharing false information or misunderstanding a key idea?

3. What should I do about my best participants, the ones who love to discuss — they hate that the rest of the class brings their grade down?

4. What should I do about my worst participants, the ones who hate to speak up — they hate that they bring the rest of the class’s grade down?

Good questions.

Let’s get those answers out of the way superficially first, and then I’ll say more about how to use roles to address them.

1. Stay silent for the duration of the SPIDER Web discussion, at least the first few times. Just watch and observe, and ask your students to do the same. It’s remarkable what happens. There are often large spaces of uncomfortable silence; when your students realize that you will not “save” them from this silence, they understand they must save themselves. It’s cool, albeit sometimes painful, to see. One important note, though: always, always debrief at the end. Ask students to talk about what worked that day, what didn’t, and have students come up with a fair assessment against the rubric you provide them. You need to talk then and help lead them through the assessment process.

2. Use your judgment. If students are misinterpreting a passage and very clearly wrong in their understanding (not a matter of opinion, supported by textual evidence, but rather just plain wrong), I bite my tongue for a moment or two and wait to see if another student will catch it and correct it. More than half the time this is what happens, and I’m relieved. Many times, though, I will jump in to quickly correct a factual inaccuracy or misreading that is leading them all down the wrong path. My advice is to allow it to go a little longer than you normally would (a minute or three) to see if the students can be the ones who catch and correct it (this is excellent practice for the real world, where we all need to be skilled assessors and speak up when something looks inaccurate, no matter how popular it seems). But by all means then jump in. No need to wait until the debrief — they’ll have wasted valuable time exploring something that isn’t valuable.

3. My favorite quandary! What the superstar participants don’t understand yet is that they are so focused on themselves they don’t realize they themselves are bringing the class down with their vocal domination. Both the student who monopolizes discussion and the student who opts out of it are bringing the group grade down equally. They don’t actually hate the shy kids bringing their grade down; what they hate is that they feel they are punished for being inquisitive and insightful. But there is an important difference between being inquisitive and insightful and being loud. Many kids who love to share believe that others who don’t speak up have nothing to say. This is an endemic fallacy in education, one that I have been very guilty of buying into as a teacher. What happens when the superstars are asked to listen more often and focus on helping sustain discussion through good question-asking, for example, is that space opens up and suddenly you hear these furtive, profound ideas from the edges of the crowd — the students who are always in the shadow. I’m very careful to help all students see that no one is punished for being sharp; on the contrary, the idea is to have a balanced, thoughtful discussion and we simply can’t do that with a handful of voices over and over again. Why  would I want to reward my students for interrupting their peers and always having the last word because they believe they are always right? In most class discussions, this is how we rate participation. We aren’t doing them favors by rewarding bad behavior that doesn’t even lead to good discussions. Instead, let’s train them how to be really excellent leaders of those discussions so suddenly my best, most vocal student is listening more than talking and asking the three most interesting, well-placed, and well-crafted questions that spark more and more debate.

4. The opposite problem with the same outcome. I’m amazed how often these little voices come out of the woodwork when the superstars are asked to quiet down. Students who would never normally breathe a word during class are often the ones who say the most surprising or interesting comments. We talk openly about how hard it is to speak up when others are always fighting for “air time” and how difficult it is for shy students to add to the discussion. I encourage shy students to start by preparing a question or two and asking it instead of offering up their ideas, which can seem scarier. And I make sure to praise shy students for their milestones (first contribution, first contribution that wasn’t a question, first discussion in which they spoke several times, etc.); I do this openly, during our debrief, as I want students to really feel that we are all in this together, celebrating the small triumphs as a team. As with the superstars, we aren’t doing our shy students any favors by sending them off into the world hiding in the back, hoping not to get called on. We all know from personal experience that the most salient, poignant moments of learning in our own lives were when we were pushed outside of our comfort zones or challenged a bit beyond what we thought we could achieve, and then we achieved it. Shy kids hope to not have to ever speak up, and we are doing them a disservice by allowing that vicious cycle to go unchallenged.

So here is a practical suggestion for how to handle the group dynamics of SPIDER Web discussion: use roles.

Sometimes we have those students that simply cannot shut up. They mean well but they just steamroll everyone. What’s difficult is that many times they are very insightful thinkers and speakers, so they have been rewarded for steamrolling for years. You know you have a superduperstar on your hands when you tell them at the beginning of class that they will not speak during today’s discussion, but rather do the web graphing, and they moan and groan. You know you have a superduperstar when, during that same discussion, a particular heated point comes up and you see said student wriggling in her chair, desperate to answer, and she asks, “Can I just say one thing?” And you really know you have a superduperstar when said student, who understands completely that her role is only to listen and graph, forgets and still contributes to the conversation (sometimes even multiple times) before being reminded she is to be silent.

For years I did just this with my superduperstars, because –painful as it was for them — it was so interesting how much more developed the discussion would get when the superduperstar didn’t feel the need to respond to everyone’s comments. Kids often commented on how much more “room” they had to talk. And it was a good exercise in restraint for the superduperstar as well; she often noticed things she had been missing by talking all the time.

But recently I’ve needed to address some particular dynamics in a class I have (one superduperstar and the majority shy kids), so I needed to expand beyond just silencing the superduperstars. I have done this most recently by experimenting with roles. Lately I’ve come into class on discussion days and assigned the following roles on the board:

- Web Grapher

- 3 Question Asker

- Host

- Textual Evidence Leader

- Vocab/Literary Term Leader

- Key Events/Quotes Leader

- Feedback Giver

I explain them as follows:

- Web Grapher: the person who draws the web of discussion so we can see it and debrief it at the end. If students are familiar with this and a bit older, they can begin to do simple coding as well (see a list of codes here on my wiki).

- 3 Question asker: can only ask three questions and not say anything else. The key is to ask the right three questions at the right time — to challenge the discussion at the point it most needs challenging, to probe the crucial element that needs probing, or to redirect when the class needs redirecting. This is a real art that students begin to develop over time by watching their peers practice it.

- Host: responsible for making sure everyone gets in the conversation if they aren’t doing so of their own volition. They are encouraged to be good hosts and be very sensitive to their peers’ fears; I openly tell them not to put someone on the spot with a difficult question if it looks like they aren’t paying attention, or to lob a very shy student a real softball (“Do you like/trust/believe this character? Why not?”) instead of asking him some complicated hypothetical question that no one knows how to answer (this happens a lot in the beginning. Much awkwardness ensues, but that’s the trial and the error of the process — nothing to be afraid of. Just talk openly during the debrief about how better to handle it next time).

- Textual Evidence Leader: charged with keeping the discussion rooted in the text. If ideas and opinions are flying back and forth, this role requires the student to ask those opinion-holders to back their ideas up with quotes; she might even be good enough as to do it every time herself. I’ve found to my surprise that certain students (and not usually the superstars) are incredibly adept at this, which adds much to the discussion. Since I’ve begun assigning this role only a few weeks ago, I’ve noticed an exponential increase in references to the text — always a good thing in English.

- Vocab/Literary Term Leader: tasked with having a copy of our current vocabulary list and literary-terms list and making sure one of each new ones gets said correctly in discussion, either by him or a peer. The other day during a good grade-ten discussion on 1984, one of my students was describing Winston in comparison to Julia, calling him bland and average. The vocab/lit team leader off to the side was whispering something he couldn’t hear. “What?” he whispered back to her. “‘Prosaic,’” she stage whispered back, and everyone laughed. We had just had the word on a quiz that very day. “Yes, Winston is quite prosaic,” he agreed.

- Key Events/Quotes Leader: this is the newest role I’m trying out, as sometimes I feel that students have good discussions on one aspect of the reading but they never mention other key events. I’m going to ask all students to prepare this every night for the following class when we discuss so that each one is ready with this (a good individual exercise in identifying key plot points and quotes anyway), and then I may start by asking this leader to write them on the board and people can agree or disagree as the discussion begins. Still playing with this one.

- Feedback Giver: this is the most crucial role of all. This is the only student in the whole class who is not expected to participate. Her sole role is to listen and take copious notes on what she hears, so we can benefit from her feedback at the end. Students tend to break it down into “what we did well” and “what we didn’t,” which for now is working well. It’s amazing how honest students can be with each other; the other day one of my students who was tasked with this role said, “I had no idea what Jane or Alex were doing during this discussion.” I myself had noted how off task Jane seemed, pretending to be taking notes on her laptop but clearly doing something else. I was going to address the laptop courtesy rule (laptops can only be used for the discussion; otherwise, close them as a courtesy to your peers, showing them that you are engaged and listening) myself after the debrief, and yet this student took his own friend to task for it quite bluntly. More effective than my doing so for sure. I always ask the feedback giver whether it was interesting to play that role, and they agree that they hear so much more when they aren’t talking, when their only job is to listen. How often do we ever get a chance to really hone our active listening skills? A good opportunity for our kids.

I assign the roles more or less at random, but it’s interesting to note the patterns. When the superduperstars are restricted to three questions, the discussion usually goes much more smoothly, so I often try to put someone in that role who needs to step back from talking a bit. But there are interesting footnotes; a few weeks ago, one of my superduperstars (who usually can’t stop talking and loves to engage) had already asked her three questions and when I walked by her desk, I noticed that she was doing work for another class. I found it fascinating that this student only believed the discussion was worth paying attention to when she was a part of it.

I also find the roles a nice way to engage some of those very shy kids; when they have a concrete role (finding key quotes, asking three questions, playing host) they can often enter the discussion more easily

So give the roles a try in the next week or two, whether you teach IB math or grade 2. Adapt the roles as you see fit for your classroom and let me know the result.

 

 

 

 

Be Better: Spider Web Discussion and Why, Thankfully, Teachers Are Not As Important As We Thought

17 Feb

If you’ve never heard of Spider Web Discussion, then you probably haven’t spent much time with me. Spider Web Discussion is the single most useful tool in my educational toolbox. When it comes to teaching, I believe in feedback, authentic assessment, putting student learning before teachers’ interests, Essential Questions, fostering an engaging, ethical classroom environment, and asking students to do the “heavy lifting” of learning rather than to parrot my thoughts back to me; I believe all of these are crucial elements to successful learning.

So what if you had one method that incorporated all of those pedagogical elements at once? And it was free? And it required nothing more than a piece of paper and a pen?

Well, here you have it: Spider Web Discussion. Here is a method I first learned from a Harkness school I taught at in New York; in the years since I taught there, I went on to hone and develop this method into something more detailed, systematic, and closely tied to assessment and self-evaluation. I have spent the last seven years using Spider Web Discussion in my classrooms with students of varied age, ability, English level, and nationality. I’ve shared this method with hundreds of educators, both colleagues and attendees of my workshops, and they often report giddy levels of excitement about Spider Web Discussion’s effects on their students. I’ve had math, French, and elementary teachers try it — skeptically, in many cases — and fall in love with it; they find what I have found: that there is so much to gain in opening up your classroom to student-led inquiry with detailed feedback and self-assessment.

So here is a brief overview of Spider Web Discussion:

What is it?

Basically, it’s a highly-stylized version of Socratic seminar, which is a student-centered discussion on a particular topic, question, or text. In most high schools, Socratic seminar (or Harkness method, as some schools like to call it) is still driven by the teacher. While students are the ones discussing, the teacher is still the referee and master of knowledge, offering up the right question at the right moment, redirecting the conversation, correcting misunderstandings, and ensuring that students are being civil to one another.

In Spider Web Discussion, the teacher is largely silent. When I do it, I sit in the back of the room, away from the students, and I avoid eye contact with them. I have a blank notepad in front of me on which I take notes about their discussion. Who is asking the right question at the right moment, redirecting the conversation, correcting misunderstandings, and ensuring that students are being civil to one another? The students are. That’s their job, and I train them over several months to do it. By the middle of the year, they do it very well. I take a perverse pleasure in seeing how irrelevant I am in the classroom when this starts to happen every year around November (after three months of Spider Web practice) — the students themselves are far better referees and masters of knowledge than we usually give them credit for (or even allow them to attempt). In my next blog post, I’ll talk more specifically about how I train them, so stay tuned for more detail there if you are interested.

For now, though, a general overview and an invitation to go ahead and give Spider a try this week in your classroom. Dip a toe in and see what happens, whether you teach IB Chemistry or ELL, college or grade two.

Why is it called “Spider Web” discussion?

Good question. It’s an acronym for several aspects of the discussion that are key to its success:

Synergetic – it’s team-oriented, balanced, and group graded (the whole class gets a single grade for each discussion).

practiced – it’s ongoing, practiced and debriefed. It’s not a one-time activity but a process, much like writing.

independent – the teacher “interferes” as little as possible; students run the discussion and self-assess.

developed – the discussion gets deep, builds on itself, goes “somewhere.”

exploration – this is the main goal; more than discussion, it is a discussion-based exploration (of a text, Essential Question, or topic)

with a

rubric – this is the cornerstone to the whole process: to have a clear, concise rubric against which students can easily self-assess (you can make the rubric based on what you want to accomplish, but you are welcome to use/adapt some sample ones here on my wiki).

The “Web” part of the name comes from the web-like graph that one of the students or I graph to map the discussion while it’s happening and then use to debrief later.

A few key things here about Spider Web that make it very unique (and distinguish it from its cousins, Socratic seminar and Harkness):

1. On my rubric, balanced discussion and ethical behavior are front and center, right alongside providing support for ideas/argument and having deep, critical, interesting explorations. It’s amazing to see how requiring all students to speak in order for an A grade to be assigned and requiring that people not interrupt or dominate the conversation shifts the classroom dynamic. Suddenly the “leaders” are the empathic students who may not usually get to shine, and the “superstars” have to accept that being loud and dominating is not helpful to a group exploration and brings the group grade down. They must reassess what it means to be productive in this new context (hint: I usually encourage my superstars to become better question askers, to inspire even deeper levels of discussion, rather than use the crutch of always vociferously giving their insights and opinions).

2. There is a group grade. The whole class gets an A or the whole class gets a C-. There are no individual grades given for Spider Web. This is a monumental shift for students to get used to and can cause anxiety in high-school students who agonize over grades. I am careful to use the grading as a tool and not a weapon — I handle this issue delicately, and I have worked in schools that will not allow this grade to count at all. I roll with whatever environment I’m in and tread carefully here. But even if the grade is formative and doesn’t “count,” students take the task seriously because we dedicate time to process, the rubric, and the self-assessment. By November, I am no longer assigning the grade — the students are. Now that it’s February, I can say, “Look at the rubric, guys. How did we do today?” And they’ll debate with each other and usually come back with an honest answer.

3. Just because there is no individual grade does not mean there is no individual feedback. Quite the contrary — on my notepad, I’m taking copious notes in code (you can see my coding — a work in progress — here on my wiki). Since I started doing Spider Web and keeping track of these codes in my gradebook, I have a veritable treasure trove of data on individual students. Suddenly I see that Jake is an expert at referencing the text to support his and others’ arguments, but he regularly makes errors in comprehension of those passages. And since all students are required to speak, more or less equally, during the discussion in order for the class to get an A, I have a lot of data after several months — far more than I would have just correcting assignments or allowing the old discussion model (superstars dominate, shy kids stay silent and accept that they will not get top marks in participation).

4. The shy students and the superstars have to negotiate this new terrain, and it initially makes them uncomfortable. It’s amazing what happens, though, when the loud people learn that they are bringing the grade down (I mean, haven’t we been rewarding them all along for being loud and pushy with their ideas? Isn’t that “good” participation in the old model? Spider Web has made me totally rethink my position on this, as I have seen shy, quiet, and academically limited students share some of the most insightful comments ever during discussion only because the superstars had finally been asked to listen more often than dominate. Try it for yourself and see the results.) I talk openly about this difficult new terrain and how it’s hard for quiet students and loud ones alike. I don’t pretend that elephant isn’t in the room; instead, I keep reminding them that the goal is to have the best, deepest, most interesting exploration of an idea we can as a team — how can we do that if only a few people are involved?

There are a lot of good documents on the wiki if you want to try it for yourself. There is a rubric for HS (with an English focus), and a rubric for Grade 2. There is a document that tells you how to begin step-by-step if you want more detail. There are many examples of the “web” graphs to see the progression over several months — how students went from chaos and imbalance to order and balance. Here is a video about Spider Web (called Harkness in the video) from my early teaching days at a Harkness school if you want to see what it looks like in April, after nearly a year of practice.

Next week I’ll blog about how student roles can deepen the process even more. But for now, take a stab at it, no matter what your discipline. I just heard about a group of Thai language teachers at the International Community School in Thailand who are committed to Spider Web and are enjoying the fruits of it in their classes. And when I asked a colleague friend who teaches elementary school to pilot Spider for me in the second grade, she came back amazed at how much her students knew and how well they led their inquiry without her leading or prompting them.

Sometimes even we teacher “superstars” can learn from listening and watching.

Be Better: Make Sure You Are a Student, Too

3 Feb

Last year I got PADI certified as an open-water scuba diver. Despite a lifelong love of the ocean and a stint as a lifeguard, I was surprised by how challenging I found the course. First of all, I was far more scared of being underwater than I had ever imagined. The first time I went down I had a mini panic attack and had to come right back up (we were shoulder deep in a pool, so this was both easy and slightly embarrassing.) Second, as the course advanced, I found the math challenging, basic math used to determine the pressure and time limits for safe diving. There is nothing to it, really, but I have never been “fast” or “good” at math, and I felt very slow and very bad at it in practice and on the written exam. I flushed with anxiety as I sat next to my two friends and the pressure conversion questions literally started swimming around on the page.

In short, it was a great experience. First of all, because I got to swim with spotted stingray, schools of silver barracuda, baby sharks, and one very friendly batfish. But it was also a great experience because it was so humbling. It was humbling because I was genuinely afraid each time we went down to the bottom of the ocean until my very last dive, when something finally clicked and I relaxed (on the fourth time, mind you). And it was humbling because I felt very insecure and, for lack of a better word, “stupid.” I felt like a bumbling landlubber next to these salty dive masters and boatmen. I felt idiotic when I could never remember the sequence of events to check our equipment before throwing ourselves backwards into the sea, or that I never seemed to remember how to unhook all my equipment post-dive and always needed help. I’m really uncomfortable when I am not an expert, and I felt very much like a fish out of water when I was diving because I was so new, so flustered, so anxious trying to calm my nerves and remember all the information I was supposed to have retained but hadn’t.

Basically, I felt like most of my students feel.

It was a good reminder, because even at the wise old age of 34, it’s so easy to feel fifteen and dumb again. All you have to do is be a student of something you are not good at. I recommend it highly.

In this spirit, I’ve just begun my first MOOC — massive open online course — with Coursera. It’s an education course taught by faculty at the university of Edinburgh called “E-learning and Digital Cultures.” While I feel a little more expert in this arena than in the subaquatic one, it’s great to be a student learning something new again. This class is a free, open course with no required homework, so you do as much or as want with it as you’d like. I spent a couple hours this weekend in the class readings and video page and came away with pages and pages of useful resources for my current 1984/Dystopian Society unit. That alone was worth taking the course.

Check out Coursera’s offerings here — https://www.coursera.org/ – I got lost in dreamland scrolling through them, fantasizing about taking courses in algebra, Greek history, and poetry with professors from great schools around the world.

It doesn’t have to be a MOOC, but make an effort between now and the end of the school year to take a personal challenge: agree to be a student for one course or activity, especially in one that takes you a little bit out of your comfort zone and asks you to stretch your mind (or body, or both) in learning. It’s good to be the student sometimes; you’ll have more empathy for your own students and better understand the concepts of learning, understanding, and misunderstanding as a result. You also might get to see some giant manta rays.

 

 

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 614 other followers