Today was the first day of a new term, or quarter depending on which schedule you are used to. I got to school today after a weekend full of grading finals, preparing the snow thrower for the upcoming winter, maybe this year it will make it the entire season, and even a little fun with my wife at the Packers game. When I arrived I knew I had to prepare for wrapping up my lesson on the move to agriculture. I had students create skits and perform them in front of the class, but needed a way to pull the ideas together to allow for the transition to civilization.
I must admit I didn't bring my A game to this lesson. I didn't prepare for this lesson as well as I should have. I was trying something new, and was expecting just basic responses to basic questions. I created a few questions for students to examine with a partner about the benefits and problems associated with the move to agriculture.
The objective of the lesson was to have students to see that there were significant changes to society once we moved to agriculture. Again the structure of the lesson could have easily failed to achieve this goal. Instead it turned out to be a very cool experience for me and the students. The lesson was not spectacular because I wrote great questions, that's for sure. The lesson wasn't great because I had a great plan for the day. The thing that I believe made this lesson go well was the conversations I had with students as they worked on answering the questions. It was these brief discussions with students that turned a bland lesson into one that I had to share with others.
I have made it a point to spend more time talking with groups while they are working. I want to sit in on their conversations for many reasons. One important one is to engage the quiet student who would otherwise be lost in the large group conversations. This time those conversations rescued my failing lesson.
As I moved from group to group, the responses students shared, helped me adjust my ensuing conversations with the next group of students. If the lesson ended with these conversations, I would done about as well I would expect with the preparation I had completed. I would have gone away thinking, I had some good individual discussions, and reflected on how to improve. But the lesson didn't end there. We moved to a full class discussion that went unexpectedly.
If students were able to understand that gender inequality started as a result of farming, I would have been happy, but the lesson didn't end with this revelation. As the conversation continued I found the concept of surplus dangling in front of me. I then provided them with a little scenario to help illustrate the idea of inequality of wealth and power that results. I told them some of them were good farmers, some struggled with growing crops.
Last year in Wisconsin we had a very wet spring and many farmers got their fields planted late. I used this to illustrate that some wouldn't have had enough to survive the winter. So I had students pick 2 students who were very successful and had a significant surplus of crops. Now we had 2 good farmers and several struggling farmers. I asked the successful farmers would they trade some of their food with those who needed it. They agreed, but they wanted something in return. I asked those who were in need of food what they would offer. The first class offered labor and I followed up with how much time would they be willing to work. They started with days, then like an auction, they drove up the bidding until one said they would work forever to food from the good farmers. The other classes went similarly with the addition of selling their own children into slavery, or giving up parts of their land.
Here it was, the beginning of slavery or at least indentured servitude or debt slavery and it came from the students. I could see the lights turn on for many students as soon as I restated the idea that a fellow student had just volunteered to work for ever for the other farmer. They were processing what this meant. Some even asked him if he was willing to be a slave for the rest of his life. Others playing their role, offered up other classmates, and some their own children.
This is where the conversation transcended the discussion of agriculture to a walk through major historic events. They saw the development of gender inequality, slavery, the beginning of job specialization and how that too led to inequality. I then examined what the farmer with surplus and now workers gained. They were able to gain power, and wealth. The students also discussed what those individuals would do with the power and to maintain their power. We could have been talking about events of modern times. I need to continue to build to students understanding those connections, but we need to cross that bridge later on.
I feel very fortunate. My students took a lesson that I thought was a doomed and they turned it into a winner. I will say the decisions I made along the way, especially immersing myself into the student's group discussions made a significant difference in how I adapted the lesson and the final results. If I had sat back and waited for the students to just report out, I never would have heard their ideas, or had opportunities to process their levels of understanding in order to create the guiding questions I made as the lesson progressed. I didn't come to class as prepared as I should have but the engagement and connection to students allowed this lesson to prosper and be a meaningful experience for all of us.
I had a great experience this week and it is again one of those things that I can absolutely take no credit for.
I hope I am able to do justice to this experience. Last week as we were bringing first term to an end, I asked students to create a skit where they act out a conversation between members of an ancient hunter gatherer group. The conversation was about whether or not the group should stay hunter gatherers, or transition to a settled farming way of life. Students were to show their understanding of both ways of life by presenting the pros and cons of each lifestyle. They would wrap it up by recommending which lifestyle they thought would be best for them.
When I created this lesson, my intention was simple, to give students an alternative way to present their knowledge and understanding in a way that engaged more of their intelligences and was hopefully more fun for them. What I experienced was a truly touching example of inclusion, acceptance and compassion. I would love to share with you all of the various examples of the skits, but the one I have selected is a true example of what happens when you let students have choice in our classes.
I let students choose their groups. As you typically have it, many join into friend groups, and unfortunately you do have some groups that are less functional than others. As I watched students work together I saw students for the most part really jump into the task. They shared ideas and came up with some creative ways to represent their understanding. The biggest thing is they worked together and I heard and saw almost all students involved in the process. This alone made me very happy because I felt I found something to engage students and they were excited about doing the task. There was on group in particular that went out of their way to include two students who have some unique learning challenges. They not only decided to have these students be part of their group, they sought out to make sure they were given important roles in their skits. The students were encouraged throughout the planning stage, and it was phenomenal to see the group interact, all of them interact together throughout the process.
I cannot say enough how proud I am of my students who rise to the challenge daily with difficult course work focused on developing 21st century skills like problem solving, and critical thinking. I don't want to short change any student, but this group exceeded my expectations. Their actions touched me so much because I don't know if at their age I would have made the same decision. I am inspired by their compassion for their fellow students, and this is another example of how students have so much power in creating an engaging and accepting classroom. I hope the video below helps you understand how amazingly blessed I am to work with these young people on a daily basis.
For years teachers have been told that they need to differentiate, to provide individualized instruction to each and every student that is appropriate and challenging to that student. This idea isn't really new, the one room school house like we saw on Little House on the Prairie with Laura Ingalls. The concept makes sense if the ideal educational situation were created. Much like the fictitious scenario in the show, the following would be necessary: there would be a very small number of students, the teacher would be with those same students all day long and be able to build a relationship with them to develop an understanding of each students level of content mastery. The teacher would know when a student at age 13 enters the classroom and doesn't know their alphabet, they can't expect that student to read or write a novel. They create meaningful level appropriate learning opportunities. The teacher is able to educate the student where they are in terms of knowledge and understanding.
Fast forward several centuries and here we are trying to implement the same tried and true philosophy. The difference this time is teachers don't see the same students all day long, at least not typically after elementary school. Which makes developing relationships more difficult. Another major issue is that every student is different and learns at different rates, yet students take coursework based on age or grade level and not individual readiness. So why do we maintain this system? There are many reasons, but a significant one is because we are directed by outside sources to maintain specific expectations that are measured by standardized tests. I hope people realize the irony of the directive to create differentiated instruction to only use standardized tests to measure student learning!
The objective of this post is not to gripe about the educational system we are in. I do not want to paint the picture of negativity, but rather point out one way I found to adapt to the growing expectations place upon educators. As I continue to grow as an educator and learn about student learning, many times with the help from colleagues, I realize there are many ways to achieve the same goal. In a conversation with one of our amazing special education teachers, she pointed out the idea of examining how and what we attempt to measure when assessing students. She asked me am I more concerned with what they know, or how they show it? The answer at times is both, but mostly it is content knowledge, and understanding that is by far more important than the vehicle they use to demonstrate their level of mastery.
The result of this conversation was another revelation for me. I had moved away from multiple choice questions a long time ago because I didn't think it gave students an opportunity to really show what they know. It was either right or wrong. Here entered what I thought was the greatest method of showing what students know and understand, the essay. The light bulb moment was when I realized that I liked this method for a reason I hadn't thought of previously, that it was easy for me as a student. I have always found writing to be an easy way of expressing my ideas. I realized that even more when I have "discussions" with my wife. When she says we need to talk and I am caught unprepared, I say some stupid things that turn our "discussions" into "I'm sorry honey" very quickly. Writing is easy for me because I can take time to process my thoughts. I am realizing this isn't the case for all students.
You have again made it through one of my ramblings to wonder why is the title about technology when the word hasn't appeared in the entire post. Okay, so armed with this new understanding, I have made attempts to utilize something that many students find more engaging; technology. I wanted students to present their own perspective on the actions of the American Colonists. I asked them the following question: "Were the American Colonists justified in their rebellion against Britain?" We had already written two papers about American ideals and democracy, so I wanted something different. I had recently listened to some podcasts when the idea struck me. What if students create an audio response to the question?
Here is where technology runs supreme! I turned to twitter and asked for some help in finding a technology that would be suitable for the task. I had a variety of suggestions from a number of amazing educations. There were things like Explain Everything, iMovie, and many more. But one stood out to me not because of what it could do, but because the person not only suggested it, but took the time to seek out a new technology, and make a sample recording that he shared with me. Reuben Hoffman who has been a catalyst for my joining Twitter and so many other educational changes helped me out once again.
I decided on using Audioboo which is what Reuben suggested. I created a sample file by recording a reading of the Gettysburg address just to show them how easy it was. I explained what I wanted for the task, and let the students go. I have about half a dozen use Audioboo, and the rest used voice record functions on their phones and share their files through emails, texts, and other methods. It was cool to see so many different methods utilized by students to complete the same task.
As we talked about the task after students submitted them, there were many who liked this because they aren't strong writers. Others didn't like it because they felt like they had to do extra work because they wrote the paper and then just read it.
I didn't differentiate the lesson, but the method of presentation from previous tasks, so is it really a great example of differentiation? Well you be the judge of that, but from my point of view it is a great learning experience for me. I learned another way to have students present their understanding. It was a method where the technology didn't need to be taught, or stand in the way of student learning. Students picked up on it quickly and most used their own method they were comfortable with. It allowed some students to shine, and it pushed others to move out of their comfort zone and present using a new methodology. It reinforced the idea that students learn differently and that I need to continue to offer new ways to illustrate their level of comprehension.
My final thoughts (having flashbacks to my college days and Jerry Springer), are simple. I don't believe differentiation in the vision of Little House on the Prairie, could become a reality very easily. Others may disagree, but I have never seen it done in my career, so I find it a daunting challenge to emulate something I have never experienced. That being said, I am trying to take steps to create more opportunities where I differentiate lessons or activities, but for now I will focus on my assessments. What is important in my assessments is first and foremost the mastery of content. If a student could show me their understanding through creating a short movie, a song, a book, an opinion paper, a debate, or some other method they or I could envision will continue to be encouraged.
Please share other ideas to help me create a more diverse, differentiated classroom experience for my students. I welcome your comments and ideas. I am learning and open to change and growth in my practice.