Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Why I don't tell students to study

I don’t tell students to study anymore.  I just don’t use the word.   It is not that I don’t believe in students studying.  It has nothing to do with the anti-common core movement.  It has nothing to do with testing in general. I have found that these terms are ambiguous and meaningless. I am a 7th/8th Language Arts virtual teacher.  I teach reading, writing, grammar, and studying.  

When I asked my students what they did to prepare for a test, the answers that I got back was study and review.  My follow up question was what does it mean to study.  The answers back was “Mrs. Kerr - study means to study”  I asked how do you study, and the answer back was reread. Now granted it, I teach middle school students, so I was not expecting well-thought out answers.  However, I was expecting something more that “rereading.”    

Students don’t know how to study.  It is assumed that they were taught to study somewhere in their education, but I have found that they were not.  Rereading is not an effective activity to prepare for a test.  It is time consuming and boring.  

The students know how to take tests; however, they do not know how to study.  Teachers need to take time to teach how to study.  Now, I am not saying the teachers need to add one more thing to their long list of things to teacher.  This can easily be incorporated into teaching.  My favorite way to teach how to study is teaching the use of graphic organizers.  As we are learning a piece of literature, a graphic organizer is filled out. As we are learning a new grammar lesson, a graphic organizer is filled out.  I use a variety of graphic organizers.  Since I teach virtually, there is no need to copying.  I also keep templates online available - the students all have access to Google.  The students are to keep a folder on their desktop or in cloud storage of the graphic organizers.  

My second favorite technique is the use of sticky notes.  I encourage students to put labeled sticky notes in their books at strategic places.  For example, if students can’t remember the linking verbs, I tell them to put a sticky note on the page that has the list of linking verbs and label the sticky note “linking verbs.”  This helps the students to organize the grammar book so that it more manageable and easier to review.

When we get close to a unit test, I ask the students to share their folders so I can review them.  This takes minimal time on my part.  The students are encouraged to use the graphic organizers when they take their tests.  This is done for two reasons:  one, because I can’t actually see the students when they test, there is no possible way that I can assure that they are not using their notes and book; and two, this motivates students to fill out the graphic organizers and use the sticky notes.  

Parents seem to like these techniques because it takes the overwhelming responsibility of trying to get a child to spend hours rereading away.  Parents only need to ask 2 questions:  Please show me the graphic organizers for this unit.  Please show me the sticky notes in the book and tell me why you put the sticky notes there.  Now parents and students know what to focus on to review without spending hours of rereading.  And students are not engaging in the ambiguous task of studying.

Marzano, Robert J., Debra Pickering, and Jane E. Pollock. Classroom Instruction That Works:
Research-based Strategies for Increasing Student Achievement. Alexandria, VA:
Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2001. Print.

Urquhart, Vicki, and Dana Frazee. Teaching Reading in the Content Areas: If Not Me, Then
Who? Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2012. Print.

Constructive Complaining

People like to complain.  Teachers are no exceptions.  It is a way to vent about situations that they feel they can’t control nor change.  Constant complaining can lead to a toxic and negative work environment. However, complaining can be the first step to identifying an issue so that we can ask the questions to make a change.
The virtual educational program with which I work is REALLY BIG into Stephen Covey’s seven habits.  One of the habits is seek to understand before being understood.  Listening, I mean really listening - not the look like listening - is an effective skill in understanding other people.  This sounds simple enough; however, we, especially teachers, spend most of our time trying to get other people, specifically students, to understand what we are saying.  That is our job.  However, when it comes to complaining, it is sometimes better to listen.
For example, eight years ago, virtual education was basically non-existent in the state where I live.  We had to develop everything from basic policy and procedure, to testing, to policy enforcement, to curriculum adaptations; you name it, we had to create it.  There were a lot of complaints from teachers, parents, and students.  The middle school team decided early on to listen to the parent complaints - what wasn’t working and why.  Some of the things we could fix, like a consistent homework policy for the entire middle school instead of each teacher having his/her own homework policy.  Some of the things we could not fix, like their child refusing to work.  As the lead teacher for the middle school program, I am on the “front lines” of complaints from the other middle school teachers.  I listen to what they have to say, repeat key points so that I know what the issue is, then I ask “Okay, how do we change this for the better?” From here, we can make positive changes; we feel like a team; and we feel that our ideas are validated.  
Now I know that this all seems simplistic - that is because it is.  We don’t solve every problem we encounter through this.  Some problems just can’t be solved like state mandates that make no sense in the virtual platform, parents who refuse to monitor their students’ internet activity, students who want to hide from school by enrolling in a virtual program and then not working.  We still complain about these things because we are powerless to change them.  However, we have solved many complaints.  For example, now if students do not work in their educational program, they are put on an academic probation type plan.  This doesn’t not stop students from trying to hide, but we now can hold them accountable.  
Julian Baggini, a British philosopher, wrote that “constructive complaints requires only two things:  that what you are complaining about should be different, and that it can be different.  It sounds simple, but too often our protests fail this test.” When we start to complain, maybe instead of focusing on what isn’t happening, we should focus on what we can do to change the situation.  

Covey, Stephen R. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. London: Simon & Schuster, 2005.

Covey, Stephen R. The Leader in Me: How Extraordinary, Everyday Schools Are Inspiring
Greatness, One Child at a Time. New York: Free, 2008. Print