Originally posted 10/21/15 at my EdWeek Teacher blog, Capturing the Spark.
I’m working on the later chapters of my book, and came upon these notes from last year, recording during a visit with a fellow high school English teacher. The student I observed and spoke with was working on a writing exercise, to create an obituary for a celebrity who’s still alive. Sounds a bit grim perhaps, but it’s an interesting exercise in research and concise writing that rises above mere summary. Here’s what I noted at the time (student’s name has been changed):
I take a peek at Brenda’s obit. for Oscar Pistorius. Curious about how she’s using [her teacher’s] feedback via Google docs. She doesn’t understand [teacher’s] request to clarify a “best, wrong, confident quote from Pistorius.” Brenda doesn’t recognize that the quotation web site lists key words under a quote. She picked a quote with “Best, Wrong, Confidence” as key words, and she called it a best wrong confidence quote. We talk about the quote a bit; I find she’s also unfamiliar with optimism/pessimism, and glass half-full/empty.
I wanted to share these notes because they underscore how complicated a simple assignment can be. Many people think of teens as “digital natives,” and yes, Brenda has skills with web browsing, searches, creating and sharing Google Docs. She’s seen her teacher’s feedback suggesting that “best wrong confidence” doesn’t make sense, and though the words are in her paper, she doesn’t understand the phrase either: she didn’t put those words together herself. We trace it back to the source. The website she used has labeled the quotation that way (see screenshot at right), and she’s not pre-disposed to question the website or search for some logic that’s not immediately apparent. She doesn’t know what keywords are, and hasn’t inferred that this website generated three nearly random keywords by simply pulling from the quotation, even if they’re not really “key” words, and not associated logically to each other. Judging by other examples on the page, I’d say the keywords could just as easily have been dieting, recovering, people.
Then, as I talked with Brenda about her quotation, what it says about Pistorius (the famed South African sprinter with prosthetic limbs, who was on trial for murder around the time of this classroom observation), I found she didn’t know the terms optimism or pessimism, nor was she familiar with the common idiomatic expressions regarding the glass being half-full or half-empty. So, while the assignment Brenda was working on might seem fairly straightforward, there are several layers of background knowledge and new learning to consider. This writing exercise has revealed some areas of research skills and language skills that still need work. What should a teacher do? Let’s assume for the sake of discussion that my observations match the teacher’s, and that the issues surfacing in Brenda’s work are relfective of the needs of many students in the class.
Option #1: Move on. There’s a plan for the course, a timeline to manage in order to expose students to all of the essentials in the curriculum, and time is limited. The broader priority of writing instruction might drive the decision not to do any remediation in work on research and langauge skills at this time. Make a note to try to address the issues later if possible.
Option #2: Teach more research skills. The teacher could add lessons helping students understand websites that collect and curate information, looking at their organization and features, understanding their purposes. After all, the students’ future writing success will depend on insightful use of web sources.
Option #3: Deal with language development too. In addition to spending more time teaching research skills, the teacher could add lessons about common idioms, figurative language, and strategies for understanding these in context. The lesson would serve dual purposes, improving both reading and writing.
Without knowing more about the students and the course of study, I don’t think we can make a correct choice among those options. For different age levels and in different subject areas, teachers prioritize certain essential, foundational skills and concepts. Teachers who know their subject and how to teach it must have the flexibility to adapt to their students’ needs – within a lesson, unit, or academic term. The question is how much to address and when; if we try to “fix” everything, work can become tedious, the overall pace of the class, laborious. At the same time, plunging ahead for the sake of “covering” the curriculum, without adjusting based on student needs, is not much of an instructional strategy either. Pacing guides created by people outside the classroom can’t account for what actually happens, and what teachers learn about their students as they work together.
As an English teacher, my preferences tend towards moving on to new content, though always informed by the most recent student work. I’ll usually adjust future units of study rather than slow down too much on a current unit; trying to address too many needs at once, we risk disengagement. We shouldn’t be overly invested in perfection and quick, short-term gains. Take the long view, be ready to proceed, and keep exposing students to learning that makes them curious, invested in their own progress, and intrinsically motivated. Students who don’t master the use of supporting evidence when writing about the current texts and topics will have later chances to work on that while studying new reading topics. In any case, students continue to revisit the same broad language skills continuously through English classes, year after year.
If I were teaching mathematics, the risk of student disengagement might be greater if I moved on too quickly. Investing more time and effort in the basics would seem more essential. Students struggling with algebraic equations containing a single variable are not going to develop their skills by moving on to multiple variable equations. (Math teachers are invited to correct or improve upon my example).
The ultimate decisions in these situations must be left to teacher discretion. Teachers need to be skilled at creating learning experiences and opportunities, and experts at making sense of student work in order to improve learning through the right instructional adjustments.
As a post script, looking back at my notes now, I also notice the deficit-based view I’m taking of this student’s knowledge and skills. In the course of visiting over 60 campuses last year, I made a point of focusing on the strengths of teachers and schools, but in this moment focusing on a student, I slipped. I wasn’t appreciating what Brenda did know, what she could do; I wasn’t curious about what her own language and culture might offer as lenses for understanding this quotation and this writing exercise. That doesn’t change what Brenda might need in terms of academic development, but an appreciative, strength-based outlook could change how teacher and student understand each other and the work they do together. Now, the observations of the observations are suggesting some deficits in the observer as well; maybe I was operating from my best wrong confidence.