Thinking Made Visible

Used to be, when students would stare off into space, we wouldn’t know what they were thinking about. Now, with all the screens in front of their faces—and ours—we at least know the topic of their attention.

But what are they actually thinking? How can we get inside their heads to discern their thought process? If they’re on the mark, terrific!  But if they’re stuck, how can we know?

My colleague used these cool, washable markers and the tables in her science lab to do just that: Get inside her students’ heads.

 

We were co-teaching a lesson in AP Biology about food insecurity in Afghanistan—the primary and secondary causes and the various effects interruptions in growing and marketing food have on the health and well-being of the people in that war-torn country.  It’s a complex topic with complicated connections.

So after we set the stage by introducing new vocabulary, after we had shown a short film about microcredit and talked about food aid from foreign donors, after we’d discussed the topic as a group, we distributed a paper for students to read and a guided reading activity to accompany it. The weekend homework was for students to read the paper, which proposed some solutions to the problem, and think through the questions on the guided reading sheet.

Sure enough. Come Monday, several students hadn’t read the paper. Even more tripped up on the questions because what was called for weren’t easy, fill-in-the-blank, seek-and-find responses. The students had to think about what they had read and make connections. It was a tough assignment. The reading itself was daunting.

But what my colleague did next was not to berate the students or express exasperation. Instead, she put them in groups and asked them to draw the connections, as they understood them, between the causes and effects of food insecurity–right on her lab tables.

As the students sketched out the author’s ideas, my colleague and I were able to move from table to table and with a glance, see where thinking had gone awry, where gaps in understanding occurred. When we’d point out the exact place where the students had not understood, we could sometimes hear sucked-in breaths or audible exclamations. “Oh! I get it now!”

For us, this exercise was thinking made visible. Because of it, we could lead students to a better understanding of what had previously been confusing or even mystifying.

I began to think about where else thinking is visible and what kinds of opportunities teachers construct to make that happen. After all, a check for understanding isn’t meant to be a check for recall. It isn’t just about getting the right answer. A check for understanding is supposed to clue teachers in as to what our students actually have comprehended or taken away from a lesson.

In math class, teachers ask students to “show their work.”  That’s how the teacher can tell if the answer was a lucky guess or the product of a thoughtful approach to the problem.  If the teacher can see the steps the student took to arrive at the solution, the exact point of un-understanding is visible—just as in the table talk my colleague and I conducted with her students.  In fact, math teachers look at “showing your work” as a road map. The point where thinking breaks down is the precise place to apply the red pen—not just on the answer itself. Or, as the teacher in this video does, apply the yellow highlighter.

Geometry offers the same potential for revelation of thought.  Proofs are mental processes revealed. In evaluating a proof, the teacher has to follow, step by step, the student’s logic. That makes checking proofs time-consuming—just as, when reading students’ essays, the English teacher has to follow the student’s train of thought in order to make actionable comments.  But from heavy duty assignments like proofs and essays, teachers learn precisely what students don’t understand—or do, as the case may be.

Old-fashioned sentence outlines are also great revealers. Students prefer the bullet points of a topic outline, of course, because they can bluff their way through an outline check or turn in something when they haven’t really started thinking about their topic. But when ideas aren’t connected with transition words and complete sentences aren’t available for examination, the teacher can’t really follow the student’s train of thought. When a sentence outline has gaps and misunderstandings, the teacher can direct next steps.

One of my favorite lessons when I taught composition was an exercise in understanding how sentence outlines work. I’d find or construct a fairly complicated sentence outline of a research topic, cut the sentences into strips, remove the numbers and letters, and assemble sets of these sentences, all jumbled up.  Students would form groups, and I’d hand each group a set of the sentences. They’d spend the rest of the period figuring out the outline based on logic and the clues provided by transition words. Then, of course, I’d require them to construct their own sentence outlines.  

And when I really cast my thoughts far back into the recesses of my life in an American classroom, I remember sentence diagramming. I’m not advocating for bringing that back necessarily, but I do have to say, faulty diagrams revealed exactly what students didn’t understand about sentence structure.

Whenever a performance is required, whenever students do something, we see thought in action: Their level or degree of understanding is immediately evident in the performance of a musical piece, the execution of an art project, the preparation of a recipe, the construction of a garment, the reassembly of an automobile system. The problem is, when what we seek to understand is a mental process, it’s not so readily visible. Sketch notes help. Graphic organizers and graphic summaries help. Models and puzzles and other manipulatives do the trick.

But what else? Send me your pictures and tell me about the activities and processes you employ to make thinking visible.  I’d like to put together a gallery of thought-tracking possibilities.

And if you purchase some of those neon markers?  Be sure to get some Windex and a roll of paper towels, too. You’ll need them!  This activity is addictive!

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Writing Like a Scientist

The first year, we just put a toe in the water: We addressed the use of the passive voice.

The next year, we took on pronouns.

This year, my colleague and I dove in head first: We tackled passive voice, pronoun usage, scientific description, conciseness, the particular vocabulary of science, and (of course) citations and internal documentation. The goal: improved Science Fair projects–and ones that read like science writing.

An instructional coach for secondary teachers, I was thrilled three years ago when Mrs. Amanda Cox approached me about her goal for the year: incorporating the Indiana Academic Standards for Literacy into her Honors biology classes. Mrs. Cox took the standards to heart.  “I want my students to write like scientists,” she told me, “but they don’t know how–and I’m not sure I know how to teach them. I’m not an English teacher.”

She’s not alone. The literacy standards–which apply across the curriculum–challenge many content area teachers.  Writing instruction begins in grade school, but the skills that are emphasized are the ones in the English teacher’s toolbox: introductions that capture the reader’s attention, strong action verbs, colorful vocabulary choices, rhetorical questions, apt quotations.

English teachers don’t focus on the language of science. We want variety in sentence length and structure to sustain interest in the content, and we aim for metaphor, simile, and other figures of speech for the same reason. The passive voice gives us the heebie-jeebies.

If you’re a content area teacher, it is easy enough to require writing, but requiring something means teaching it–or knowing for sure that it has been taught–and then grading it. Where is the professional development in reading and writing for content area teachers?  It came, delightfully and productively for my colleague and me, in the form of co-teaching.

We began with the passive voice, one of the most distinctive features of science writing–and a requirement for the Science Fair project.  In science, it’s the discovery that is important; the role of the specific scientist is downplayed. So, in a  traditional write-up of a scientific investigation, the scientist is missing from his or her report. Instead of saying “I discovered X,” a researcher would write, “X was discovered.” Mrs. Cox’s 9th grade students had never even heard of passive voice.

A grammar lesson was necessary, and I was happy to prepare and deliver it. An English teacher by training, I was in my element. Even more fun, I was in front of students again. I had a chance to refresh my classroom skills.

With practice, Mrs. Cox’s students learned to write sentences in the passive voice. Their lab reports began to sound a little more scientific. But a quantitative payoff wasn’t there. The average grade on the Science Fair projects that year was the same as the year before: 76%.

So the next year we tackled pronoun usage. Again, in science writing, pronouns are scarce. When one is used, its antecedent is unmistakable.  So another grammar lesson was in order: What’s a pronoun? What’s an antecedent? Why do they have to agree? And what’s agreement anyway?  

Every English teacher in the country knows how pesky pronouns can be and how tough it is for kids to master them. Drill and kill doesn’t much work as a strategy for learning. A teacher can spray red ink on a paper like Roundup on weeds and still the pronoun errors sprout again in the next paper.

Mrs. Cox and I decided on an old-fashioned revision method: We projected sentences onto the whiteboard that we had drawn from the students’ own lab reports and, working together as a class, corrected them. That process worked well.  In correcting the pronoun errors, of course, we uncovered other problems and eliminated those, too: problems of conciseness and specificity, problems of vocabulary and redundancy.

For example:

  • New information is important because it can change the way you view other information.

became New information changes the way other information is viewed.

  • We couldn’t figure it out but as we received new information and hints, we got closer and eventually we got it.

became Understanding developed gradually.

  • New information and scientific processes are important because they help further our understanding and develop our research.

became Scientific inquiry yields new understandings that, in turn, inform further research.

By the end of that second year, students were more sensitive to language and could quickly spot a sentence written in the active voice and change it into the passive.  But still, the overall scores on the Science Fair projects didn’t budge.  Seventy-six percent remained the average.

By the third year, we decided that we needed to take a much more robust co-teaching approach. Mrs. Cox selected a scientific paper for students to read and dissect and I prepared a lesson that engaged the students in teasing out the fundamental differences between writing for English class and writing like a scientist. Those differences included using the passive voice, and redefining description to mean facts and processes, not “colorful” language.  In English class, students reach for strong verbs, vivid adjectives, figurative language, and even auditory devices like assonance and onomatopoeia. None of that obtains in a journal article for science.

In addition, I taught the students how to document their sources using MLA format, 8th edition. (Yes, they could have used APA, but our teachers have made the decision to use MLA from middle school through early high school in order to be consistent.  Once students have the documentation process down, transferring to APA or any other system will be easy.)

I was in Mrs. Cox’s classroom often enough this year that I learned the students’ names. By October, I felt like a teacher, not a coach. I even helped with drafts and with grading the final projects—that surely made me feel like a teacher!

And the results: This year the average score jumped to 80.5%.  The students garnered top scores at the regional science fair. One young man, who won gold at the regional competition,  qualified for the state science fair and won the Stockholm Award–an honor that brings with it the chance to win a trip to Sweden and participate in a competition there.

Co-teaching the Science Fair project has been fulfilling for both of us—for me, this kind of coaching—where the emphasis is on student learning, in this case through co-teaching, provided sound and appropriate professional development for me, the instructional coach, and for my colleague, the 9th grade Honors Biology teacher.

We both learned new skills.

Mrs. Cox can teach these English lessons now herself (although we do have one more tweak we want to make next year), but the co-teaching idea has spread. Next year I’ll be working with an 8th grade science teacher and a 12th grade Anatomy and Physiology teacher with the very same goal in mind: improving the quality of science writing and thereby augmenting student learning.

And this time, those teachers and I will dive into the deep end right from the start.

Writing Like a Scientist

The first year, we just put a toe in the water: We addressed the use of the passive voice.

The next year, we took on pronouns.

This year, my colleague and I dove in head first: We tackled passive voice, pronoun usage, scientific description, conciseness, the particular vocabulary of science, and (of course) citations and internal documentation. The goal: improved Science Fair projects–and ones that read like science writing.

An instructional coach for secondary teachers, I was thrilled three years ago when Mrs. Amanda Cox approached me about her goal for the year: incorporating the Indiana Academic Standards for Literacy into her Honors biology classes. Mrs. Cox took the standards to heart.  “I want my students to write like scientists,” she told me, “but they don’t know how–and I’m not sure I know how to teach them. I’m not an English teacher.”

She’s not alone. The literacy standards–which apply across the curriculum–challenge many content area teachers.  Writing instruction begins in grade school, but the skills that are emphasized are the ones in the English teacher’s toolbox: introductions that capture the reader’s attention, strong action verbs, colorful vocabulary choices, rhetorical questions, apt quotations.

English teachers don’t focus on the language of science. We want variety in sentence length and structure to sustain interest in the content, and we aim for metaphor, simile, and other figures of speech for the same reason. The passive voice gives us the heebie-jeebies.

If you’re a content area teacher, it is easy enough to require writing, but requiring something means teaching it–or knowing for sure that it has been taught–and then grading it. Where is the professional development in reading and writing for content area teachers?  It came, delightfully and productively for my colleague and me, in the form of co-teaching.

We began with the passive voice, one of the most distinctive features of science writing–and a requirement for the Science Fair project.  In science, it’s the discovery that is important; the role of the specific scientist is downplayed. So, in a  traditional write-up of a scientific investigation, the scientist is missing from his or her report. Instead of saying “I discovered X,” a researcher would write, “X was discovered.” Mrs. Cox’s 9th grade students had never even heard of passive voice.

A grammar lesson was necessary, and I was happy to prepare and deliver it. An English teacher by training, I was in my element. Even more fun, I was in front of students again. I had a chance to refresh my classroom skills.

With practice, Mrs. Cox’s students learned to write sentences in the passive voice. Their lab reports began to sound a little more scientific. But a quantitative payoff wasn’t there. The average grade on the Science Fair projects that year was the same as the year before: 76%.

So the next year we tackled pronoun usage. Again, in science writing, pronouns are scarce. When one is used, its antecedent is unmistakable.  So another grammar lesson was in order: What’s a pronoun? What’s an antecedent? Why do they have to agree? And what’s agreement anyway?

Every English teacher in the country knows how pesky pronouns can be and how tough it is for kids to master them. Drill and kill doesn’t much work as a strategy for learning. A teacher can spray red ink on a paper like Roundup on weeds and still the pronoun errors sprout again in the next paper.

Mrs. Cox and I decided on an old-fashioned revision method: We projected sentences onto the whiteboard that we had drawn from the students’ own lab reports and, working together as a class, corrected them. That process worked well.  In correcting the pronoun errors, of course, we uncovered other problems and eliminated those, too: problems of conciseness and specificity, problems of vocabulary and redundancy.

For example:

  • New information is important because it can change the way you view other information.

became  New information changes the way other information is viewed.

  • We couldn’t figure it out but as we received new information and hints, we got closer and eventually we got it.

became Understanding developed gradually.

  • New information and scientific processes are important because they help further our understanding and develop our research.

became Scientific inquiry yields new understandings that, in turn, inform further research.

By the end of that second year, students were more sensitive to language and could quickly spot a sentence written in the active voice and change it into the passive.  But still, the overall scores on the Science Fair projects didn’t budge.  Seventy-six percent remained the average.

By the third year, we decided that we needed to take a much more robust co-teaching approach. Mrs. Cox selected a scientific abstract for students to read and dissect, and I prepared a lesson that engaged the students in teasing out the fundamental differences between writing for English class and writing like a scientist. Those differences included using the passive voice, avoiding pronouns, and redefining description to mean facts and processes, not “colorful” language.  In English class, students reach for strong verbs, vivid adjectives, figurative language, and even auditory devices like assonance and onomatopoeia. None of that obtains in a journal article for science.

In addition, I taught the students how to document their sources using MLA format, 8th edition. (Yes, they could have used APA, but our teachers have made the decision to use MLA from middle school through early high school in order to be consistent.  Once students have the documentation process down, transferring to APA or any other system will be easy.)

I was in Mrs. Cox’s classroom often enough this year that I learned the students’ names. By October, I felt like a teacher, not a coach. I even helped with drafts and with grading the final projects—that surely made me feel like a teacher!

And the results: This year the average score jumped to 80.5%.  The students garnered top scores at the regional science fair. One young man, who won gold at the regional competition, qualified for the state science fair and won the Stockholm Award–an honor that brings with it the chance to win a trip to Sweden and participate in a competition there.

Co-teaching the Science Fair project has been fulfilling for both of us. This kind of coaching, where the emphasis is on student learning, in this case through co-teaching, provided sound and appropriate professional development for me, the instructional coach, and for my colleague, the 9th grade Honors Biology teacher.

We both learned new skills.

Mrs. Cox can teach these English lessons now herself (although we do have one more tweak we want to make next year), but the co-teaching idea has spread. Next year I’ll be working with an 8th grade science teacher and a 12th grade Anatomy and Physiology teacher with the very same goal in mind: improving the quality of science writing and thereby augmenting student learning.

And this time, those teachers and I will dive into the deep end right from the start.

Under Discussion: Reciprocal Teaching

Here’s a problem that teachers have to deal with all too often: Kids come to class not having read the assigned text, or chapter, or article.  What to do to move forward?

The solution for some has been to do an end run around such assignments by having the students read the piece in class instead. That takes a lot of instructional time and leads to strategies like Round Robin Reading (RRR) and its cousins, Popcorn Reading and Combat Reading.

RRR is not a comprehension strategy; it’s a management tool.  Kids keep quiet and listen because they might be called on next.  Worrying that they might get called on next means they’re not paying attention to what is currently being read. If the teacher is obvious about who’ll read next, the students know when their turns are coming and are rehearsing while someone else is laboring away at her chunk of the text.

RRR is not a valid fluency strategy, either: With no chance to rehearse what they’re reading, poor oral readers won’t do well—and on top of that, they’re modeling poor reading for others.  And, there’s the embarrassment factor. I can remember from my own schools days that some kids hated reading aloud because they anticipated stumbling, and the good readers hated it when the poor ones read for just that reason.

But after all these years, teachers still use RRR.  It’s primarily a management strategy.  Kids are quiet, occupied, and the assignment gets read.

So okay.  You still have to lick the didn’t-read-the-assignment-before-class problem.  What could you do instead?

How about trying this strategy: Reciprocal Teaching.

Like literature circles, Reciprocal Teaching (RT) depends on students assuming specific roles: Summarizer, Clarifier, Questioner, and Predictor. In their groups of four, students read the text—or chunk of text—in class and then discuss what they’ve read with each other.  Each student has a reading purpose. The Summarizer knows he’ll have to recap what happened in the story or outline the main points if the piece is non-fiction.  The Clarifier will keep an eye out for words or phrases that might be confusing. The Questioner asks like a teacher, probing the text not just with recall questions (especially if the students are secondary level) but with “What ifs?” and “I wonders…” and other idea extenders.  The Predictors make an educated guess about what comes next—they’re like “the weatherman” one student told me.

Naturally, the teacher needs to be sure the students understand the demands of the four roles.  With older students, that may only require a simple explanation.  At any age, it may require modeling or even a dry run or two.  As with any new skill, the students have to be trained or their conversations won’t be productive.

Reciprocal Teaching can be used with fiction, but it was originally designed for use with non-fiction: a chapter in a textbook, a newspaper article, an argumentative essay, a short informative piece. As they take turns leading the discussion, students practice summary skills, learn to think beyond the text, help each other discern meaning from context, and importantly, grapple with text structure.  This last is a significant challenge. Kids know the story arc well by the time they reach middle school.  Being the weatherman for a fictional piece isn’t hard because middle school students know how foreshadowing works, and they’ve had enough experience with stories to imagine plot turns and story endings that aren’t pat.  But they’ve had less experience with the structures of non-fiction.  Reciprocal Teaching gives them practice at discerning how a non-fiction piece is laid out—to learn about order of importance, problem/solution, cause/effect, comparison/contrast, chronological order, and other methods of organization–to predict what comes next in an informative or argumentative piece.

Website sources such as those listed at the end of this article spell out the details of structuring a Reciprocal Teaching lesson.  Bookmarks with question stems and note-taking sheets are provided on many websites.

Recently I’ve seen Reciprocal Teaching in action.  In fact, I modeled the strategy in a 6th grade classroom, which is where the “weatherman” quip originated.  The students were quick to catch on and excited to implement the strategy.  All the groups were reading the same book: Julie of the Wolves. The students loved talking through that day’s chapter with each other. Days later, after several rounds using the Reciprocal Teaching process as it has traditionally been practiced, the 6th graders suggested a new spin. Let the summarizers all talk together and choose the best summary, the clarifiers work through a variety of confusions to share with the class, the questioners ask questions of each other and then pose the best to the class, and the predictors to consider a variety of options and present their consensus to the class.  Another variation you might try is having each group of four make up a quiz over the assigned section and exchange quizzes with another group. You, the teacher, are the final judge of the quality of the questions: Students get all the points you’ll assign if their questions are thoughtful and carefully written.

Reciprocal Teaching 1Or, each group can read a different piece.  I also recently presented Reciprocal Teaching as a comprehension strategy and an alternative to RRR to a group of high school teachers.  After the workshop, one 10th grade teacher selected articles from internet and newspaper sources that all related to the concept of ambition. Each piece explored the topic from a different perspective. His students read the articles in small groups and then reported the gist of each to the rest of the class. All this was in preparation for a unit on ambition with Macbeth as the anchor text. His students staked out corners in the classroom, spots in the hallway, and tables in the cafeteria to hold their discussions.  I listened in and was reminded not of wooden Q-A sessions where the teacher decides what ideas to privilege and what details are important, but of adult book club conversations.

Another colleague, a high school health teacher, had been using RRR for years.  Once he learned about the advantages of Reciprocal Teaching, he deliberately reorganized his classroom, moving the desks from conventional rows into clusters of fours. His students—who definitely hadn’t been reading their assignments—had taken to the strategy immediately.  They’d developed independence as readers rather quickly.  The teacher found that he was able to circulate among the clusters and keep an ear on their discussions—a much better management strategy, he found, than casting an eye on the students from the front.

One of my colleagues, a high school music teacher and band director, used Reciprocal Teaching as a strategy for students to review for the final exam.  The students enjoyed the process and the conversations about the musical language he wanted them to understand and use on the final went beyond simply recalling definitions.  Watch this video to see what Dan Peo did.  Be warned: the process was noisy.  https://drive.google.com/a/tsc.k12.in.us/file/d/0B1xPdu7aOTwqVlFHWmo1bHcyZTA/view?usp=sharing

Reciprocal Teaching is, at its heart, far more than a strategy to manage the classroom, but if that’s the starting place, that’s okay.  Once teachers see how well Reciprocal Teaching works and how much students like the process of learning from each other, they choose RT.  It’s an effective way to build comprehension skills and teach text structures.  Instructional time is put to good use—and the assignments all get read.

 

http://eclass.uoa.gr/modules/document/file.php/PHS122/%CE%91%CF%81%CE%B8%CF%81%CE%B1/Reciprocal%20teaching.pdf

This is the original research reported by Annemarie Palinscar and Ann L. Brown (1984) in Cognition and Instruction. The authors developed the strategy, Reciprocal Teaching, and in this paper describe its effectiveness in improving comprehension skills among seventh graders.

http://www.readingrockets.org/strategies/reciprocal_teaching

This explanation for elementary school teachers has clear directions and a video of a teacher modeling the process for a group of students. Downloadable bookmarks and a worksheet are provided.

http://www.readingquest.org/strat/rt.html

Another clear set of directions from a web site for social studies teachers. This site explains that the order in which the group members “present” is not fixed.  The teacher should prescribe the order that makes sense.

Under Discussion: Literature Circles

P1010150Literature Circles are old hat now. English teachers everywhere–from the elementary grades through high school—use this strategy to group students by interest or by reading level. Harvey Daniels, who popularized the concept and brilliantly refined it, has published at least five books on the topic. How-to websites abound, and Pinterest is a rich resource for the props that go with establishing literature circles: the “role sheets,” question cards, sentence starters, anchor charts, choice boards, discussion guides, and rubrics.

I came to literature circles quite by accident sometime in the early 90s—before Harvey Daniels and before roles for participants in the circle had been devised. I am sure I was not alone in figuring out for myself what to do when faced with a wildly disparate group of students. All these years later, I’m still a believer in literature circles—and I encourage the use of Harvey Daniels’ role sheets (plus some of my own devising) although I’ve learned that some educators think the role sheets are limiting.

But that year, whichever year it was, I was still fairly new to teaching high school English. The course, called “Trails West,” featured books about the American West.  My class was hugely mixed in readiness and in student interests.  A few students, whom I’d had in Honors 9 English, consumed books like cookies and cake; others read poorly, infrequently, and under protest. The course was nine weeks long and the curriculum specified that the students would read three books within that time frame.

Essentially, I decided to teach thematically and, for the first unit, selected three books on aP1010623 single topic: The Western Hero (aka, the Epic Hero). The books I chose (from what was available in the bookroom) were The Virginian, the classic by Owen Wister that established the cowboy as an epic hero; True Grit, in which a young girl sets out with a grizzled old lawman to avenge her father’s murder; and Shane, a book about as close to the epic pattern as anyone could imagine. The second “unit” was about the pioneer experience; the third, the Native American experience.

Every three weeks, students chose the book they wanted to read (Miraculously, I thought, no one tried to “read down” and a few challenged themselves to “read up”). Initially, they met in groups of four or five to lay out a plan for the number of pages they’d read before the three meetings I had pre-established for them to convene and discuss the book. I supplied the questions for these meetings—the same ones for each group since the themes were the same—and in between meetings, the students read, kept a list of self-selected vocabulary words, did a mini-research project, and took direct instruction from me on topics related to the book or on other relevant English class topics.

I made bookmarks for everyone, with spaces for page numbers, so they could establish daily reading goals. They divided the number of pages in their book by the number of days to completion. Some kids didn’t need that—they could hardly put down a book they liked—but the reluctant readers enjoyed checking off the little boxes on their bookmarks that indicated they’d accomplished their 10 or 15 pages for the day. They might stop mid-chapter rather than read one more page, a mind-set I admit drove me crazy, but the bookmark served as a kind of time clock for them. When they’d completed their number of pages, they could congratulate themselves, check off a day on their bookmark, and close the book. The strategy worked. One boy, a junior, told me at the end of the year that Shane was the first book he’d read cover to cover in his entire schooling experience.

I’ve seen literature circles work when all the students are reading the same book and in Lucy, Henry, Taylorsituations like mine where students chose a text, based on their interests or their reading levels. I’ve seen literature circles work in subjects other than English and with articles rather than whole books. The online Encyclopedia Britannica presents leveled versions of its topics, and NEWSELA, a free online leveled reading site, (www.newsela.com) sends daily articles relevant to science, sports, history, the arts, current events—all kinds of subject areas—each article written at as many as four to five grade levels. The site also offers complete text sets on topics of interest to teachers of every discipline.

However you choose to implement literature circles, at the heart of the strategy is the discussion: Kids talk about what they have read. The questions the students ask and answer  go way beyond study guides and recall and comprehension recitation. Nowadays, I’d have them take turns making up their own questions, trading around the responsibility for being the discussion leader. Another person’s role is usually to summarize the pages under consideration so that everyone in the group has the facts right, but eventually, questions about the author’s purpose, concerns  about the motivation and credibility of characters, and conversations about style emerge.

Lit circles are more like adult book club conversations than teacher-directed Q and A. They’re effective at drawing students in because the conversations are genuine and everyone gets a chance to say what they think. They work as a vehicle, too, for developing fluency in academic conversation and for inculcating the manners that are necessary for civil discourse (Hence, the sentence starters and conversation rules you see on Pinterest).

I had good luck with lit circles with Honors students and struggling readers alike. In fact, my favorite memory from those Trails West days is of Pencilhead (see my blog post:       https://sarahpowley.wordpress.com/2012/04/01/pencilhead/), at that  time a reluctant reader and would-be class comedian, pulling his chair up to another group deep into discussion of the same book his group had already discussed: He wanted to hear more.

Literature Circles get kids to read more. Literature circles get them to talking more. What could be better?

_________

This post presumes you know all about Literature Circles. Perhaps you are just getting started or even still thinking about the idea. If so, here are some starter websites:

http://www.educationworld.com/a_curr/curr259.shtml A straightforward explanation of Literature Circles—what they are, how they work, why they work.

http://www.lauracandler.com/strategies/litcirclemodels.php Teaching suggestions including variations on the basic model of roles, role sheets, information on working with multi-leveled books.

http://www.litcircles.org/Overview/overview.html This site provides an overview of Literature Circles—structure, benefits, outcomes over time—in chart form.

Under Discussion: Fishbowl

Keelsing 1In my last post, I wrote about getting the students to contribute to teacher-led discussions. But sometimes, the best way to get them talking is to structure the conversation. A structured conversation, in fact, can engage students in a lesson in ways that a teacher-led discussion cannot.

The other day, I watched a master 7th grade science teacher, Miss Kimberly Keesling, lead her class through a Fishbowl debate. Her objective was a universal lesson in critical thinking: Beware of loaded words and emotional responses. Ask questions. Do your own thinking.

She drew upon a well-known hoax from the 1990s in which scientific “evidence” was deliberately used to mislead the public.

Miss Keesling distributed facts sheets to the students—papers she’d prepared listing the pros and cons of banning a mysterious substance, dihydrogen monoxide—DMHO for short. The strikes against DMHO in the realm of health alone are pretty severe. It’s

  • Colorless, odorless, tasteless
  • Accidental inhalation can be deadly
  • May cause severe burns
  • Prolonged exposure to its solid form causes severe tissue damage
  • For those who have become dependent, DHMO withdrawal means certain death
  • Has been found in excised tumors of terminal cancer patients, but is not believed to be carcinogenic

Environmental issues are also serious:

  • Is also known as hydroxic acid, and is the major component of acid rain
  • Contributes to the “greenhouse effect”
  • Is found in almost every stream, lake, and reservoir in America
  • Has caused millions of dollars of property damage in the Midwest recently
  • Contributes to the erosion of our natural landscape
  • Accelerates corrosion and rusting of many metals
  • May cause electrical failures and decreased effectiveness of automobile brakes

On the other hand, DMHO is used

  • As an industrial solvent and coolant
  • To generate power
  • In the production of Styrofoam
  • As a fire retardant
  • In the distribution of pesticides
  • As an additive in certain “junk-foods” and other food products

Miss Keesling gave the students five minutes to ask questions, study the fact sheets, and write out talking points on one side or the other. Then she took the pulse of the class. Those in favor of banning DMHO went to one side of the room; those against banning it, to the other. The Undecideds sat in the middle. She explained to the students that they were going to have a debate about DMHO, so they had to use facts.Keesling 2

It took only a few minutes then to explain the rules of Fishbowl:

  1. Three people—volunteers, one from each group—would be at the front of the room, seated on a comfortable couch. (Usually, Fishbowl is done with two concentric circles—an inner circle and an outer circle—but the rules are malleable.) Using their notes and the fact sheets, the students would take turns presenting their point of view about DMHO.
  2. When a speaker finished, if another student wanted to support that point of view, he’d tap the speaker on the shoulder and the first speaker would sit down. In that way, only three people at a time were seated on the couch.
  3. The speakers stood up to present their arguments.

Middle schoolers love to talk, love to debate, and these students did so brilliantly. Their arguments for and against banning the mysterious substance were cogent and fact-filled. Some students were direct and succinct; others became quite animated. Within 15 minutes, just about everyone in the room had spoken. I heard impassioned and powerful statements and effective transitions such as these:

  • Although it is used to generate power…
  • It’s a risk: But life is about risk.
  • Bottom line: It kills people.

Sophisticated stuff for 7th graders. At the end, my colleague asked how many of the students had switched sides because of the arguments they heard. Some had.

Then she made the Big Reveal: DHMO is water. She broke the scientific words down into their roots and prefixes: di (2); hydrogen; mono (1); oxide. A few students caught on, clapped their hands to their foreheads: H20.

Why, she asked the students, had they come down on the side they had? All the claims and counterclaims are true—but they had been duped. Who had even asked what DMHO was before they began?  No one. What had swayed them? They had heard the facts, stacked on one side or the other as they were—all of them true, all of them convincing—and formed an opinion, often a very strong one. Why?

What followed were insightful responses that boiled down to this: The use of strong, emotional words such as kill, severe tissue damage, withdrawal, “greenhouse effect,” found in tumors… It was easy to be led to a conclusion.

And that was her point. Scientists have to investigate dispassionately. Scientists have to examine the facts. Scientists have to ask questions. They can’t be swayed by emotional language.

And it’s not just scientists. These students were quick to point out that television, politicians, advertising—they’re all guilty of using emotional language to influence their audiences. Everyone needs to be vigilant. Everyone needs to think before they jump to a conclusion about something they know nothing about.

The Fishbowl strategy proved to be superior to recitation and far better than teacher questioning for a lesson like this. Because it was experiential, because kids were out of their seats moving and talking, because they took ownership of the lesson, they were engaged in the activity and Miss Keesling was able to make her point.

Granted, this particular lesson was a set-up. But the kids were good-natured about it. They understood the message and understood the value of it being learned in this way. In fact, the lesson will stick far longer than a paragraph in a textbook or a lecture by the teacher. But the method—a Fishbowl debate—was the perfect vehicle in a powerful lesson orchestrated by this experienced science teacher. Point made.

Fishbowl works for straightforward discussions about all kinds of topics. It’s especially useful if students are invested in a topic and eager to contribute, but even shy students will express their opinion when they can choose when to tap someone on the shoulder, decide for themselves when to take an inner circle seat.

Want to know more? Here are three websites explaining Fishbowl, offering other ways of structuring a Fishbowl conversation.

https://www.facinghistory.org/for-educators/educator-resources/teaching-strategy/fishbowl  (Facing History and Ourselves) A straightforward explanation of how to set up a fishbowl discussion.

http://www.learner.org/workshops/tml/workshop3/teaching2.html (Annenberg Learner) A lengthier description with alternative ways of structuring the discussion.

http://www.edchange.org/multicultural/activities/fishbowl.html (Multicultural Pavilion) Another good explanation of the set-up for Fishbowl.

Engineers Ourselves

Problem: The spare tire installation process on the assembly line at Subaru takes too long. How can we cut the time?

Solution: Put the high school students from the Engineering Design and Development class on the problem.

The students from McCutcheon High School watched the team at Subaru struggle with the tool they were using to bolt the spare tire to its housing in cars coming off the line. The wrench twisted, making the lock insecure and the process unreliable. The boys thought they had the answer: Redesign the tool.

They created a prototype of polymer plastic with metal pins that clamped the bolt securely and cut the time it was taking to install the spare tire in half. The problem was solved and the tool was fabricated and put into testing.

The two young men who solved the spare tire installation problem were at Subaru under the auspices of their Engineering Design and Development (EDD) course, the last in the STEM/Project Lead the Way (PLTW)  sequence offered at our high school. The class is a 2-hour block class offered to seniors who have completed the prerequisite PLTW courses. The students travel to one of two major manufacturing companies in Lafayette, Caterpillar and Subaru, two-three afternoons a week. There, they are assigned to a project engineer who guides them through the process of solving real problems that confront the company—on the assembly line or on the floor, even in quality control.

Nineteen students participated in the EDD program this year. Last week, singly or in pairs

Madison holds the prototype of a manifold caliper she created on the job at Caterpillar.
Madison holds the prototype of a manifold caliper she created on the job at Caterpillar.

or trios, they presented a summary of their activities—the problems they dealt with and the solutions they found—to an assembly of project engineers and executives from Caterpillar and Subaru; their teacher, Mr. Gary Werner; and other school personnel, including Central Office personnel and the Career and Technical Education coordinator.

“We liked seeing the real-world process,” the boys who redesigned the wrench said at the conclusion of their presentation. “We became engineers ourselves.”

It wasn’t the only problem these and other students worked on during their semester at Subaru. Nine students in all worked on In Process Control (IPC) issues with uniformity of paint color, reliability of welds, pacesetting for processes on the line, and safety monitoring. The daily routine for Logan  was to investigate a problem and assign it to an area that could resolve the issue. Loose or missing parts. A rear gate that wouldn’t close properly. A defective air flow sensor. “It was detective work,” he said, “and it gave me practice in auditing, investigation, and problem-solving—skills I’ll use all my life.”

John shows us the Engineering Notebook he was required to keep while at Caterpillar--a preview of what will be expected in college classes and in the field.
John shows us the Engineering Notebook he was required to keep while at Caterpillar–a preview of what will be expected in college classes and in the field.

Another ten students were assigned to project engineers at Caterpillar. This is Caterpillar’s 6th year working with students from McCutcheon.  This year’s crop worked on a variety of problems, including:

  • Creating a level to make sure that the turbo air tubes are all uniform in degree
  • Designing a suitable cover for the engine block so that stray items don’t drop through during assembly
  • Creating a lever that applies pressure evenly to the air manifold on the engine
  • Redesigning the layout of the line desk
  • Designing a fixture to hold a water block
  • Designing a dowel that will prevent people from hammering their fingers
  • Creating a shadow board to keep tools orderly and easily accessible
  • Redesigning the employees’ entrance
  • Redesigning the system for tagging items at lock out/tag out points

Notice the verbs I’ve used to list these projects: as every educator will recognize, they’re words used to designate upper level thinking skills.  Students applied ingenuity and expertise to real world problems, developing in the process solutions that are in active play at Caterpillar and Subaru today.

The skills they learned involve math, computer applications, and presentation. Critical thinking. Problem-solving. They learned to work in teams and to follow company protocols. To take direction, but to think independently to resolve issues.

“We learned a lot,” said James and CJ at the conclusion of their talk. “We learned responsibility. Other employees depended upon us. And creativity. We learned how important that is in problem-solving.”

This school year was the first time Subaru had teamed with the high school. The engineers liked the program, liked working with the students. “It’s a pipeline for us,” they said, and indeed it will be, judging by the newly announced college interns at Caterpillar. Two of those interns, from Purdue University, are graduates of McCutcheon’s Project Lead the Way program who did their EDD work at Caterpillar.

If you’ve followed my blog for long, you’ll recall the piece I wrote about the middle school STEM class, Anything but Random.  That was the exploratory STEM class. EDD is the culminating course. It’s a path worth following for students with an interest in engineering, for students who value hands-on learning, for creative and critical thinkers who want to solve real-world problems.

My colleague Gary Werner had the idea seven years ago to approach Caterpillar and arrange these min-internships for the EDD class.  A year of planning and curriculum writing followed. The partnership with Caterpillar that my colleague forged goes beyond the national EDD curriculum by putting kids in a real-world situation where they can “see it, feel it, touch it, breath it,” or as Mr. Werner loves to say, in a “hands-on, minds-on experience.”  The course has been a success all around, and compliments were extended by the students to their project engineers as well as to their teacher. In their presentation, seniors John, Michael, and Adrian thanked their Caterpillar mentors and commented that “School only goes so far.”  It’s been good, they said, “to see their projects in use.”

Indeed, thanks to this STEM program that has partnered successfully with local industry, nineteen  more students became engineers themselves this year.

 

Auto Shop: Way More than Grease Monkeys

“We do our homework in the garage.” That’s the tag line on my colleague’s business card.

He’s an Automotive Service Instructor, of course, and an ASE Master Technician.

The course Rob Jakes teaches—Automotive Service Technology–is the second in a two-year program that can culminate for high school seniors in acceptance into a vocational college or an immediate job in the local work force.  “I have students in the automotive repair departments of dealerships all over town,” Mr. Jakes told me, “and some students are already at Subaru-Isuzu.”  Many of his students attend Lincoln Tech, the University of Northwestern Ohio, and Ivy Tech, to name a few post-secondary schools near our community.

The day I visited his class, Mr. Jakes’ students were working on the wheel assembly on a faculty member’s car.  I watched and took pictures, tried to follow the language when I couldn’t get close enough to the action: ball joint, brake pad, piston, fuel injector, torque wrench, axle. The students handled the language and the machinery with ease.

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“They learn the language in the first year course,” my colleague explained. “No room for not knowing it here.” In that first year course, there’s so much vocabulary that the teacher uses Quizlet to help the students learn. They take an engine apart in much the same way they’d dissect a frog in biology to learn anatomy and physiology.  The Automotive Service Technician program is a sequenced learning program with an academic as well as mechanical focus.

IMG_7237In their second year, the students work on actual vehicles. One of our local industries, Subaru-Isuzu Automotive (SIA), donates “dead cars” to Mr. Jakes’ program. The students bring them back to life.  Once a week, the students work on faculty vehicles, and on Fridays, they can bring in their own cars and work on problems that can be resolved in a two-hour class period.

While 70% of the time students are engaged in hands-on work with vehicles, this class is nothing like the “auto shop” stereotype of twenty-five years ago when Mr. Jakes first began teaching.  In the first place, the students use an online textbook. “In the day,” Mr. Jakes told me, “there were no textbooks.  A student would once in a while look in a service manual to figure out what was wrong with a vehicle and how to fix it.”

Because cars today operate on computers, service technicians must have sharp reading skills and advanced technology skills to diagnose and repair the vehicles that come into a shop. Repairing cars is no longer a trial and error business, and a laptop computer is a standard part of a service technician’s toolbox.

When a car comes into the auto shop at McCutcheon High School with a problem, the first thing the students will do is check their own laptops for a TSB—Technical Service Bulletin—on the vehicle. If there’s no TSB, they might visit a technical chat room to learn whether the problem has occurred somewhere else in the country and how another technician has dealt with it.

For example, one day recently, the outside mirror on our principal’s car was loose. It is a new car, but when he was driving down the highway, he noticed the mirror vibrating. He brought the vehicle into the shop and one of the students, Cody, went right to an online chat to find a solution for the problem. He found the fix: Toggle the button inside the car three times to tighten the mirror. Think what might have happened in a shop if the service technician hadn’t had the initiative, and the critical thinking skills, to look online for a solution. The customer might have been told he needed a new mirror. $300.

Cody, who is enrolled in Mr. Jakes’ class for an optional 3rd year, plans to save money for college next year and then enroll in a technical-vocational program after that. Right now he works after school at a tire store where he uses a computer to diagnose problems with pressure and balance.

I asked him how long he’s known he wanted to be an automotive service technician. “Since middle school,” he said. “My initials spell CAR,” he added with a smile.

Before he finishes high school, Cody will have logged three years in the Automotive Service Technician program and received at least six hours of dual credit with our local community college. He will also have the opportunity, at the end of his senior year, to earn student certification in four areas: brakes; electrical; steering, suspension and alignment; and engines.  He’ll need at least two years of work in the industry to be eligible for just one of the eight advanced exams needed to be a Master.

IMG_1852Thanks to his mentor, Mr. Jakes, and this challenging Career and Technical Education  program, Cody is well positioned to pursue his goal of becoming an ASE Master Technician himself.

Beyond the Pages

A few days ago, a young teacher (once upon a time,  a student at my high school) approached me after a workshop I’d conducted. “Tell me,” he said, “that I really did meet Gwendolyn Brooks when I was in high school. Her poetry has made such an impact on me.  She’s the opposite of me: black/white; female/male. She was old; I was young. But, I really connected with her. ‘We real cool’…She gets it. She really gets it.”

He was about to introduce her poetry to his 7th graders, so I dug through my personal “archives”—fat 3-ring binders with memos, schedules, programs evaluations, contracts, and photographs that I’ve kept all these years—and found a poster, a program, and a newspaper article from 1994 to help him recall the events of that day. The search took me back, too—refreshed my own memory of what was, for seven years, an extraordinary interdisciplinary, literary arts program in my high school. We called it Beyond the Pages.

 Some snapshots from those days:

  • Gwendolyn Brooks carried books in her deep, omnipresent satchel. In the middle of an intense conversation with a teenage writer, this Pulitzer Prize-winning poet reached into her bag, withdrew a volume of her poetry, and gave it to the student.
  • W. P. Kinsella, author of Shoeless Joe, carried a photograph of the real Moonlight Graham in his wallet. While he was talking with students in my class, he casually removed the wallet from his pocket and passed the picture around the room.
  • Retired Chicago Tribune editor, John T. McCutcheon, Jr., carried words and images from history-making news events in his memory. He described the atmosphere in the pressroom during the Watergate era to a hushed audience of high school journalists and their teachers.

Beyond the Pages brought students face-to-face with authors whose work they had studied. In the library, in classrooms, in the halls, and even in the cafeteria, writers with international reputations talked casually with McCutcheon students, carrying them beyond the pages of their textbooks to interactions with the authors themselves.

The goal was simple: to spark students’ interest in reading.  National statistics showed then—20 years ago—that the percentage of students who read for pleasure every day dropped by half between elementary school and high school–from 45% in Grade 4 to 24% in Grade 12.  Beyond the Pages was a commitment to reversing this trend.

IMG_1755The program began with a dream.  The English curriculum already included W. P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe when I met the author at a writing workshop in (of course) Iowa.  After listening to Kinsella discuss his book, I approached him: “If we asked you, would you come?” He told me to contact his agent.

I did.

Dream became reality when the principal endorsed the idea and the English Department signed on to plan the visit.  The success of that first event spurred the decision to continue the program on an annual basis. Eventually, Beyond the Pages branched out beyond the English Department, becoming interdisciplinary and theme-related.  Not only did teachers in other departments incorporate the writer’s work into their lessons, but faculty from many different departments served on the steering committee.  Students were represented on the committee, too, and they helped with promotional activities, art work, and myriad details.

The authors were guests at the school for one to three days.  While they were with us, they participated in a variety of small group interactions and addressed the students in all-school convocations.  The format changed from year to year; activities were tailored to the writer and to the connection between his or her work and the curriculum. Delightful spontaneous events also transpired.

  • Before Kinsella visited, my students studied his work and developed a list of interview questions. When he arrived, the television production class filmed an hour long interview in the school’s TV studio. I still have the tape.
  • In 1996, seven local writers—in a warm-up to Esmeralda Santiago’s visit—discussed their careers in small seminars.
  • In 1997, actress Annie Corley (a graduate of the high school) conducted mock-auditions in the school’s sound studio using real television scripts from episodes of Friends.
  • Scott Russell Sanders’ visit occurred when one English class was writing term papers on Indiana authors. He graciously made time for the young woman writing about him to conduct an impromptu interview.
  • P. Kinsella took a break from filming his interview to meet the special needs students whose classroom was next to the TV studio. The students were studying careers at the time, so Kinsella talked to them about the writing life.
  • And Gwendolyn Brooks gave her home address to several earnest young writers and encouraged them to send her their poems.

Jerry ScottThe program served 1100 high school students and 70 staff members, and each year the literary celebration expanded to include students and teachers from elementary schools within the district.  In 1993, for example, cartoonist Jerry Scott taught an auditorium full of 4th, 5th, and 6th graders how to draw the cartoon character NANCY.

Fundamental to the program’s success:

Teachers and students were given the opportunity to lead and the responsibility for the success of the program.

Teachers contracted with the artists, conducted the fund-raising efforts, organized the events, handled the publicity, planned the dinners, wrote the grants for funding, arranged transportation and accommodations for the authors, and conducted evaluations.  The Advanced Home Economics students prepared a luncheon for the guest author.  Students served on the steering committee, designed and printed the posters and programs, produced artistic displays, ushered, ran errands, and more.  The preparation for Gwendolyn Brooks’ visit took seven months of planning, 350 combined teacher hours of preparation, and the active involvement of scores of students—but it was done in a spirit of community. It felt like love, not labor.Brooks signing autographs

Beyond the Pages was grounded in the curriculum.

  • Every English class studied Gwendolyn Brooks’ poetry in preparation for her appearance, and students clamored for more. When she read aloud at an all-school convocation, students listened spellbound.  For the first time ever, some students told us, they felt the power of poetry.
  • When Jerry Scott brought his cartoon characters to life on an overhead projector and told students he was the “shortest short story writer in the world,” creative writing students had already written their own short stories and tried their hand at cartooning.
  • Before Scott Sanders visited McCutcheon in 1995, students in geography classes had created murals to illustrate his book Wilderness Plots. The murals were hung in the auditorium and became a focal point during Sanders’ special session with these students. In their biology and agriculture classes, students had begun creating a prairie on school property and identifying botanical species on an adjacent woodlot.  When the author arrived, the students took him on a tour of their “outdoor lab” and discussed the projects planned for the future.Sanders
  • In 1995, two other authors whose writing focuses on the geography and history of early Indiana appeared at the school in the spring to climax a year-long interdisciplinary study of “The Wilderness Experience.” Author James Alexander Thom, who had written about the Shawnee chief Tecumseh in Panther in the Sky, shared Native American stories with American history students.  Dark Rain Thom, a Shawnee clan mother, assembled her collection of Native American artifacts in the school library and provided a narrated tour of her exhibit.

The program caught the imagination of the community.

The boldness of the project–inviting best-selling authors to a public school–captured the attention of the local media.  Newspaper, television, and radio coverage helped to spread the word beyond the school.  The program was even in the sports pages.  In 1992, Kinsella opened the baseball season at McCutcheon by pitching the first ball on the school’s own “field of dreams.”

Most years, members of the public were invited to attend an evening reading or a performance at the high school.  Attendance grew from 200 in 1992 to over 750 in 1994, the year that Gwendolyn Brooks spoke.  Beyond the Pages became a community event.  

We believed that these encounters with professional writers would be motivational for Santiagostudents. Indeed, English teachers saw an uptick in students’ understanding of how a writer works and an increase in their appreciation for books.  We provided students with rare opportunities to see professional writers at work and to ask questions about craft as well as biography.  One student wrote afterwards about Kinsella, “He taught me that writing takes a lot of preparation and time.”  Another student remarked that “it helps students write better if they understand how a professional does it.”

And individual students—like the young teacher who started me on this journey through my archives—were inspired and even changed by their interactions with the authors.

I’d be interested to learn about programs today in other schools in other places. Are author visitations still happening?  Who has come to your school? How was your program organized? What was the impact? Please respond in the comment box if you have memories from Beyond the Pages or stories to share about your own school’s program. I’m hoping events like this still go on.

CRAM: A Whole Lot More than Fixing Computers

IMG_6541Literacy across the curriculum. Why is it so important? What does it mean for instruction? And what does it look like in a course like Computer Repair And Maintenance (CRAM, for short) where, as far as most people know, students just make repairs to the laptops their peers carry around and use every day?

When my district made the decision in 2011 to issue laptops to every high school student in the district, it was clear there had to be a way to maintain those computers. Hence, the CRAM class was born. Today, the CRAM classes at our two high schools enroll about 35 students each semester.

Interested students sign up for a two-hour block: One hour every day is given over to instruction. Students learn to troubleshoot problems, make simple repairs, configure the devices, install programs, and a whole lot more. The students are staggered throughout the day for that second hour in CRAM. That’s when they man the helpdesk. When students bring their laptops for repair, the CRAM students get hands-on experience with technology and they also build the interpersonal skills that are so critical for customer satisfaction.

But it’s the whole lot more that makes this class an example of what literacy across the curriculum is all about. I had the opportunity to observe my colleague’s CRAM class at my high school a couple of weeks ago. The students were making their weekly presentations about information they glean from reading about hot topics in technology. My colleague supplies the students with a list of tech websites and the students select articles of interest to them. Their assignment is to distill the information and update their peers in a brief, but formal, presentation. All of the students speak from a podium and use the ENO board to highlight the main points in what is really a professional roundtable discussion. Often, on the day I observed, they stepped away from the podium, and they all used gestures and facial expressions that complemented their remarks. They were highly articulate and spoke from a position of comfort and authority. Naturally, they managed the technology with ease. A speech teacher would have been proud.

The topics—mostly mysteries to me—included 5G (the coming standard for wireless), the Linksys wrt199ac wireless router, even a history lesson from a young man named Eric: “Ten Things You Didn’t Know about the Ethernet.” He included a poem he’d found, a parody of Housman’s “I Think That I Shall Never See”:

I think that we shall never see

A graph more lovely than a tree,

A tree whose crucial property

Is loop-free connectivity.

Their peers asked questions, made connections to prior discussions, debated the pros and cons of a particular issue. The questions from the students were serious and largely technical. When a presenter concluded, my colleague opened the floor for discussion.

James, for example, updated the class on AT&T’s mobile router. She–their teacher–asked, “How would you use this router?” and a discussion of its pros and cons ensued. Responses were immediate; there was none of the delay or reluctance to speak that sometimes happens in a class. These students were comfortable with the content and eager to share their thoughts.

An explanation of the Heartbleed bug was another topic. “Will it really destroy the internet?” asked my colleague.

“No,” said Bailey. “In terms of physical destruction, no. But loss of trust is the consequence of malware and Heartbleed and other viruses.” That’s a thoughtful reply and indicates the upper level thinking skills that conversations in this class demand.

The discussion wasn’t deadpan, though. Though they were always respectful and professional, these kids have a sense of humor: Tongue-in-cheek, one boy asked Jonathan about a piece of hardware he was touting in his report, “What color does it come in?”

“Carbon fiber black,” was Jonathan’s quick reply.

During these presentations, other high school students approached the helpdesk with their malfunctioning laptops. Whenever that happened, a designated CRAM student quietly removed himself from the discussion to service the client. He spoke in low tones, and the student needing help followed suit. IMG_6554

A week later, I returned to the class to observe the students, seated in a circle, conducting a formal discussion of net neutrality, a hot topic from the week before that had struck everyone as deserving more attention than a tech report. Their teacher (using a problem/solution format that was formerly utilized in an event called Discussion in National Forensic League speech competition) directed the students to outline the problem and the aspects of it that are unalterable, present a variety of solutions, and then select the best one. The discussion lasted for a full class period—in fact, it went over to the next day.

I was amazed by the range of the students’ remarks, by how aware they are of the world beyond high school. I heard them say

  • ISPs could starve out a website.
  • ISPs are more likely to target big businesses.
  • Let’s be frank here: The Supreme Court is an older generation and the justices don’t understand the impact they’re making.
  • This is kind of like gas prices: People notice, but the increases are gradual and people get used to it.
  • ISPs can affect not just our economy, but the global economy.
  • We need to create a new FCC.

There was much talk about customer bases, profits, Fortune 500 companies, and VPN workarounds—a connection several made to the Arab Spring and the way that protesters got around their countries’ internet blocks.

Each person presented what he felt was the best solution; others responded. One boy, for example, said that we ought to direct the FCC to call internet providers “common carriers.”

“But remember,” said another boy, “We want to connect to other countries.”

Another solution: “We should Install a VPN on every computer—then the ISPs can’t block anyone.”

And the response to it: “Pirates will break it.”

Finally, Bailey pointed out that web neutrality is a multi-faceted problem requiring a multi-faceted solution—a recognition that bespeaks maturity and a thoughtful, in-depth consideration of the issue. How often do even adults view an issue as black and white when really, whatever the topic under consideration, it’s complex? IMG_6552

In the end, their “best” solution was indeed a multi-layered one: Forming a Technology Standards committee, which would be made up of highly qualified IT professionals, that would have the power to create regulations, much like the FCC. It would receive its power to implement those regulations from the federal government. The committee would submit its proposed regulations to a public vote to ensure checks and balances. The first two proposed regulations would be a) creating more local ISPs to eliminate current ISP monopolies and b) developing standard tiered Internet usage guidelines to ensure a continued free exchange of information while allowing the ISPs to earn a profit.

Well, I was impressed. Who wouldn’t be?

The students considered the issue from multiple perspectives and arrived at a solution that addresses multiple concerns. This entire project is a demonstration of the kind of learning the new standards encourage: informed debate, reasoned responses, credible evidence. IMG_6549

Students come to the CRAM class with different levels of knowledge and experience. They receive elective credit for the course, and at the end of the year, they can choose to take a test over the skills they have learned: the CompTIA A+ Certification exam (the computer industry standard). Passing that exam yields an industry standard certificate that can lead to employment. Students can retake the class another year if they choose—the only problem is fitting it into their already crowded schedules. Nevertheless, next year students will be able to take an advanced class—Network II—that will culminate in an opportunity to demonstrate advanced career skills on the Comp TIA Network + Certification exam. At one of the high schools, because of a partnership with Vincennes University, students can receive dual-credit for both years of study.

“If only this had been possible when I was in high school,” remarked my colleague. “Potentially, our students can graduate with 8 college credits, two industry standard certificates, and two years of work-related experience.” IMG_6547

My colleague at the other high school explained a different benefit of the CRAM class: Students gain hands-on experience with laptops. “Many individuals in the IT world do not know how to repair laptops,” he told me. “In fact, our students gain experience that can lead to expertise in small device repair—like cell phones—that other technicians lack.”

He went on to list what he sees as the other top benefits of the CRAM class: Obviously, the certificates; definitely, the interpersonal skills. “Our students learn to communicate,” he told me. “They have to support others, and that means they have to communicate effectively.” IMG_6556

The newly-released Indiana Academic Standards for Literacy in Science and Technical Subjects mandate the integration of reading, writing, and speaking skills in technical disciplines. The CRAM class is already equipping these aspiring IT and Computer Science experts not only with the technical skills and experience they need, but with the literacy skills that are so critical to success in post-high school coursework and in the workforce. CRAM is a whole lot more than computer repair: It’s real-world learning at its best.