Wednesday, November 29, 2006

what does it mean to say something works?

A couple of weeks ago, I had a conversation with one of my students who is currently student teaching. She was sharing teaching materials she'd developed this semester. She was clearly excited because, as she put it, "What I love about these techniques is that they really work!"

The materials she described made my heart hurt: choral responses to vocab. words ("I can really see who knows the definitions and who doesn't!" she explained, her eyes bright), pre-tests and post-tests containing multiple choice and fill-in-the-blank questions ("They do so much better on the post-tests!"), lesson plans based on the school's template, which mandated that most of the class be devoted to direct instruction.

And I began thinking, what does it mean to say that something works? Did these things "work" because kids were compliant when she asked them to participate? Did they work because the majority of the class scored well on the unit test, even though it assessed only low-level understanding--the kinds of knowledge you can bubble in or fill in the blank?

I've been contemplating the same question the past couple of days in the book club classroom where I'm working. Yesterday, the kids were making mandalas to communicate their understanding of the spirit of the book. I've written about this exercise previously in an English Journal article, but I'm really excited about the changes Rebecca and I made for this go-round because, well, at least intitially, it appeared worked! What do I mean by that?

Well, yesterday, it "worked" in terms of eliciting student engagement. In fact, as Rebecca and I discussed later, for the entirety of the class period, only a small handful of kids got off-task, and even they didn't stay there. Kids who rarely participate in whole-class discussion had already talked more in the book club setting. But during mandala construction, some of them actually even took the lead! Overall, the groups worked *willingly* until the bell rang, and then they scrambled to put away their supplies, gather up their books, and rush off to the next class.

Today, as students began presenting their mandalas to the class, however, I thought of the question again. In the past when I've used visual interpretation activities with my classes (again, Peter Smagorinsky and I have written about Body Biographies extensively, so you should check those pubs out if you want to know more), such activities have generally encouraged students to move beyond the literal in their interpretations. The very nature of asking them to create representative symbols usually encourages that. This time, though, I was surprised to find that some of the groups didn't move much beyond the concrete events that occurred in their books. For instance, the "symbols" created by the book club who'd read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime included smiley faces ("Christopher uses these to show his emotions because he's autistic"), envelopes ("Christopher's mom sends him letters in the book"), and math equations ("Christopher really likes math"). Yesterday, though, mandalas really seemed to be "working" for this group. One of the girls had even remarked, "Our mandala is basically cool."

So did mandalas really "work" for them? Well, sort of. I think the kids would say they enjoyed the activity and felt they'd provided an overview of the book for the rest of the class. Yet, as we debriefed afterwards, Rebecca was clearly disappointed. I think she'd say mandalas didn't work at all for this group. But was this a symptom of the activity itself or something else like the fact that Rebecca suspects these kids are dutiful assignment readers but non-readers beyond that? In other words, is this a sign of the consequences of aliteracy?

Or maybe it's something else. Like the Curious Incident book club, other book clubs mentioned in their presentation that they weren't able to relate to their books because they hadn't met similar characters or had similar experiences. Maybe that's why they didn't move beyond the literal. But as Rebecca and I discussed later, isn't that why we read in the first place? To get to live other lives? So is their literalism, even in the face of a prompt like the mandala that begs for symbolic representation, a product of the standardized testing era where you get to be successful as a student if you understand the plot and can label the simile? Where in schools are kids taught to see reading, and literacy in general, as a means of cultivating the imagination?

My point is that the notion of "what works" is far more complex than we generally imply by the phrase. The good news is that I think the new book is NOT a big mistake because Rebecca and are learning that we need to provide far more scaffolding to help kids discuss difficult books in complex ways. That's what I was hoping to accomplish anyway; getting there is just going to be more involved than I anticipated.

If anybody's out there, oh, dear reader, please tell me what you think.


Ben Bleckley said...

I guess I've always thought that something works if the students make progress, that they move "somewhere new." Does that make sense? That they realize something they hadn't before, in a different way. Like and "oh, wow, I never saw it that way before" moment. But if you define it that way, it would seem only "work" the semi-rare occasions. So maybe the things that elicit those responses? Hmm . . .

I had a similar experience when I did body biographies while student teaching . . . some groups totally impressed me with wicked stuff that took the book to a new level, and others made me wonder what I was doing wrong. But really, now that I think of it, a couple groups got "somewhere new," but for the most part it was the high achievers that took it to a new level, and the one's who goofed around that didn't Part of that is probably due to my poor classroom management, which of course is crucial before anything is going to "work" . . .

I don't know, that's a conundrum.

camdaram said...

Cindy, how do I get to donna's blog?

Greg Van Nest said...

I think you and I have had this conversation before about graduates of licensure programs who learn many great teaching strategies and then go out and teach exactly as they were taught, as if to say, "Yeah, Cindy, body biographies are fun, but they're not real learning. I just did them in your methods class to humor you. Now that I'm in the real world, I need to do real teaching."

That is incredibly frustrating, but it's not all that surprising that it happens, given that they are faced with high-stakes standardized tests and cooperating teachers who encourage this kind of teaching. It's hard not to buckle to that kind of pressure.

So I guess that the basic answer to whether or not something "worked" in class is to really have a clear objective. Do I want my students to know pieces of (perhaps trivial) information from the text? Do I want them to consider larger issues and how they apply to their own lives? Etc. But then, if a teacher stays only with the most basic, low-level understanding, the question isn't "did this lesson work?" It's now, "are these the correct objectives?" Which is a much larger question, probably the one that made your heart hurt.

As an aside, I thought of something during your presentation at NCTE. I remember way back when you and I were watching Louann present something and you told me how you'd love to be at a point in your career when you could refer to your own book in a presentation or a class. In Nashville I watched you do just that. Congratulations! You're there!

camdaram said...

Some of my teaching partners think that basal reading programs work, because their students' test scores go up every year.
I don't use the program as much as they do, incorporate more novel studies, and yet my scores are similar to theirs. When talking to the junior high teachers, they tell me they know which kids had me by how they write and what my students notice when having discussions.

I think "works" is based on based more on the person doing the evaluating: it may work for some people to clean their bathroom every day, and for some, the day before they move. Neither works for me, but for two people I know, that works for them.

Donna said...

This is an interesting question Cindy. I like Greg's idea that knowing your objective clearly will help identify if something "worked." And, naming strategies that work is important so that they can be recreated. But I see the bigger problem that you’re addressing. Each new group has its own life, so to speak. What one group does with a project is never -and I mean never- the same as any other group.
It seems too, that if I ask, students have pretty neat ideas of their own that can guide my classes. The trick is to find that great balance between having an objective and being open enough to let students help determine what goes on in the class. I mean, students bring diverse and amazing experiences to what they read. We all do. And they ask incredible questions. I want them explore their own questions rather than my question. That’s what engages them and moves them to the “new place” Ben spoke of. But, what's the goal then? For example, we're studying myth right now. My 9th graders have questions ranging from "when does a story become a myth" to "is religion a myth." I suppose I want them to consider their questions and gather as much material as they can that might help them answer those questions. But really, these are questions much, much bigger than bubble sheets. Larger than 9th grade even. Maybe at the end of the unit I'll come up with a clearer objective than 'explore your question until you can't anymore - this will take a lifetime but presentations are due at the end of next week.'
Who knows what questions next year's English 9ers will have about myth. I fear though, that if I approach them with this year's expectations I'll do all of us a great disservice.

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