Friday, January 22, 2016

Note-Taking as Thinking Tool

Notes on Rules of Notice (R.O.N.) problems after looking at 9th grade exams.

Note-taking is an art. There are different systems for taking notes in an academic setting, but in the end, I always come back to my core belief that the notes must make sense for the student. I am a different kind of note-taker in different disciplines. In English, my notes are sparse and full of doodles. In my last statistics class, I wrote down EVERY SINGLE THING the prof said. If he burped, I probably put that in my notes! 

Above is a fairly typical sampling of notes in the discipline in which I am most confident: English. I'm making these today as I correct 9th grade exams. Observations I would make:

  • nobody told me I had to do this (motivation).
  • I noticed patterns of problems and wanted to remember them so that I could think about them and attempt to fix them (sense of responsibility).
  • Doubt or question...WHY, why, wHy are my students still struggling with this? Do I stink as a teacher? (curiosity with a side serving of self-doubt).
  • the notes are messy, but I can read them (distinguish between personal and public use).
  • the notes appear to be cryptic, but I can look at these weeks from now and understand what I was noticing and thinking (useful).
At the start of the year, I made an overt effort at modeling note-taking for my students. Then we moved on. Looking over my students' exams reminded me that they are still learning to be note-takers. 

The writing on their exams suggests that they are not distinguishing between personal and public use...some of the exams are extremely difficult to read. GruMbLe GRUMble. 

Finishing up 45 minutes early, and not taking me up on my offer to give an alleged essay "the once-over," when it is 3 sentences long, and maybe needs a little revising, seems like a profound problem with motivation and sense of responsibility.

Is this a case of teachers doing more work than students, by handing out notes, or study guides, so that students don't have to take notes? Are we de-motivating our students by doing too much for them?

What opportunities and responsibilities do our students have for making their writing, visibly and intellectually clear and useful, especially when it is meant for public consumption (like on an exam, paper, or project)?

Do students actually find their notes useful? I know I have not given an open note test or quiz in years, so what am I asking my students to do with their notes? What am I doing to value curiosity so that my students are willing to experiment with a note-taking system that works for them, and feel a need to take some notes?

Would it make sense for us, as a learning community, to make a co-ordinated effort at note-taking? I'm not necessarily promoting the use of a single note-taking system, but wondering how departments or individuals are navigating issues around useful note-taking?

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

PConvos: Apathy

What do we do about apathy?

I've got students who come to school, but they do no work. No work at home, and absolutely as little as possible in school. Oh, sure, if you were to walk by my room and glance in, these students would appear to be working. They pose with books. They tap away at keyboards or move pens across paper.

A closer look reveals that they've been "reading" the same page for 15 minutes. They are teenagers. Even the books they self-select bore them. 

And the writing they appear to be doing? If a keyboard is involved, more likely browsing on Craig's List for a car or car part, rather than engaging in the processes of writing and thinking. If it's putting pen to paper, well, it could be anything from a doodle to a love note. 

I used to think that the way to cure this was with pop quizzes, chapter study guides, and a reading pace designed to leave these laggards in the dust. A string of grades in my grade book was the visible proof of my efforts at engaging, and failing, these kids.

It seems to me that the students most in need of encouragement, most sitting in puddles of apathy, are the least likely to be motivated, or engaged, by quick coverage of topics, by grades, or by threats. 

So here's my first PConvos: Apathy. What do you do about it in your classroom? Any observations, frustrations, or ideas you'd like to share? Is it possible that we now do too much for our students, and so they have become apathetic?

As SNL's "Coffee Talk" hostess, Linda Richman would say, "Talk amongst yourselves!"

Monday, January 4, 2016


Some of the best conversations I have are around the photocopier. It's one of the places we all congregate. So to pay homage to the machine that can make or break our day, to share via technology the impromptu conversations that happen there, I give you "PConvos." in PhotoCopy, or perhaps Professional Conversation? Or maybe slightly wickedly, as in "Politically Correct" is intended to be a thought, or observation, or question to spark conversations in the mail room, during shared duties, at the water fountain, and of course, the photocopier! 

One of the things that my old job allowed was time for prof
essional conversations. Colleagues had time to meet formally (or not) and to discuss what we were reading, to talk over challenging situations in the classroom or the college, or to ask each other questions. 

Anyone who spends one day as a high school teacher knows that kind of time does not exist in a public school setting. 

Sometimes I think we deprive ourselves of any rare opportunity for meaningful professional conversations by moving too quickly from problem to solution. Sometimes, I observe that we become our own worst students, and act in ways that do more to demonstrate our frustrations and perceived lack of autonomy than to be open-minded, thoughtful, professionals. Other times, the timing is poor, like the afternoon before a vacation, or we're all strung-out from grading, prepping, and teaching. 

So...I'm puttin' some stuff out there, trying to give life to conversations around education issues...if I've pricked your professional pride, or offended you in some way, and you need to so in the comments section of the blog. Or by school email. Or private email to me. I don't intend to offend, but would like, once in a while, to engage in conversations with colleagues. I always learn something new. Perhaps this could be BAHS' version of the editorial page of the newspaper. 

"PConvos" will be part of the title and also the tag...coming soon!

Exam Prep: Plea and Proposals

I'm beggin' ya...don't deprive students of the meaningful cognitive work of making THEIR OWN reviews or summaries as exam prep! 

I know it's efficient if teachers make a tidy handout for students, but then all the work of the review, the sifting and the sorting, the thinking about what's been learned, the decision-making, the writing and processing, is done by the teacher. 

Some ideas for how to do this as group work:

  1. Have students work in small groups with each group responsible for the presentation of important knowledge and skills from a particular unit of study. You know your students, and the sizes of the units, so determine how much time is group work time. Give a specific limit for presentation time too. You could also require a product: a one page summary to photocopy and share with peers, a poster, a Google Doc to post to Google Classroom or to share with peers...
  2. Student-generated questions for review topics. To keep things organized, the teacher could assign topics or categories to pairs or small groups. Each group could come up with 5 questions of increasing difficulty for their categories. This could be done "Jeopardy Game Show" style or as a straightforward quiz or practice session. 
  3. Make a Google Doc and share it with everyone in a class. Set up sections and have individuals, or pairs, or small groups post knowledge and skills to their assigned section. Students could do this as homework or in class.
  4. Game of Four Corner Fun. You're doing most of the work with this one, but if you feel you must be the selector of important knowledge and skills, this game will give you that opportunity. It also has students moving around the room. 
  5. Game of Baseball Review. Again, you're the arbiter of importance, but it does put a coating of fun on what could be a review. 
  6. open-ended option and a closed one. Tried and true and covered in a brief article.

Exam Literacy

Ninth grade students need help understanding exams...schedule, importance, preparation, navigation, and calculation in semester grade! Whew!

(Click on pic to make larger)

Here's a little Google Slide Show I share with my 9th grade English students. You are welcome to copy the file and make changes or  use it as is.

This will take you to the slide show as a convenient 2 page printable doc.