Monday, October 10, 2005

Moving to the High School

This year I might have to change the heading of my blog. It states, “A middle school educator's reflections on teaching and learning.” However, this year I'm also teaching high school. So maybe the heading should state, “An adolescent educator's reflections on teaching and learning.” My middle school training has prepared me well for high school teaching. Although the content is at a different level, the constructivist view of a middle school teacher has a lot of value in the high school classroom.

Take for example - reading. At the beginning of the year, my students spent time reflecting on the reading process. Too often, at the high school level, students are asked to read more complex text, without being taught the skills and strategies to understand it. High school teachers cannot assume that students know how to actively read and comprehend. My students created comic strips to illustrate their reading process, then read a section from The Reader's Handbook from Great Source It suggests before, during and after reading strategies. Some students employed a few of the strategies before, but didn't consciously recognize reading as a process like they have been taught about writing. Now, when I give students a reading assignment, we talk about what strategies would be most appropriate for the type of text. I've also introduced double entry journals to the students. In the past, students were taught to “mark up” the text. Which, to begin with, is a good strategy. However, then they had to erase their marks to turn in the book, or, as it happens, I have a lot of novels with student writing in them. Much of this type of marking up consisted of simple comments like “Wow” of “Yuck.” Text was underlined or highlighted, but later, when the student returned to it, they didn't remember why. Double entry journals focus on the text, by requiring students to choose a portion of the text to quote on the left side, and explain the reason for selection on the right side. This teaches students to articulate their thoughts about the text more specifically.

Conversation is an important part of learning. I try to structure activities gives students opportunities to discuss what they are learning. One example of this is Literature Circles. Harvey Daniels pioneered the use of Literature Circles, in his book of the same name. Small groups of students read the same text. Each student receives a specific role, such as Discussion Director, Passage Picker, Word Wizard, Connector, and Summarizer. When the students get together to discuss the text, each student presents their role and encourages discussion from the rest of the group. In my experience, students end up discussing the same ideas that I would assign as questions, though since it is student generated, they feel more ownership for the work. In addition to Lit. Circles, I use a lot of graphic organizers to guide discussions in small groups or partners. Greece Central School District has some great examples of graphic organizers for reading, writing, and thinking. Many of these examples were developed by Jim Burke, who has other examples at his amazing website.

This year, I have been strengthening my writing instruction. The first practice I introduced to students was a daily 10 minutes writing exercise; most days are prompted and Friday is free choice. It is not a journal as I don't have students tell me about their day or unstructured free-writing. Most prompts lead the students into thinking about the topic for the day, or has them practice a style or type of writing. The goal is to develop fluency in writing, practice writing to a prompt and under timed circumstances, and focus students' attention each day. In the beginning, students complained about writing for 10 minutes straight. They didn't have the confidence in their own writing. After only two months of three times a week practice, the students don't even notice the time. I will be building self-reflection several times a quarter to help students identify their progress.