Monday, October 24, 2016

Struggle is good for students as well as their teachers

Today I taught a lesson that was a struggle!  It was a struggle for the students and it was a struggle for me.  Lately my lessons have been pretty well planned out or I have done them before so I know what to expect and where my students will need a little bit of extra guidance.  Today was definitely not one of those days!

I was finishing up the last segment of a Close Reading activity.  (I wrote about this type of lesson previously titled, "Close Reading with Shakira").   Day 1 we had read for fluency, annotated text and discussed findings with a partner.  Day 2 we had read through the lens of word choice focusing on a clear image.  We created lists of words that showed a clear image and we shared and those lists with a partner as we negotiated which words belonged on our combined lists and which words needed to be eliminated.  Day 3 we reread the article with our partners and then collaborated to organize the words listed on day 2 in categories for better understanding of the whole text.  Day 4 was today... the day of struggle.

Every day the big idea of the lesson was to determine the author's central idea.  After every day's lesson I had the students write their interpretation of the main idea.  The key word is "interpretation". I learned how to do this lesson through a conference titled "Falling in Love with Close Reading".  The presenters, Christopher Lehman and Kate Roberts both stressed the component of the lesson of letting the students come to their own conclusions by using their word lists.  They stressed that all answers were right, and that eventually with all these rereadings and analyzations of text, that the students would come around.  So, day one, when no one wrote a central idea remotely related to text I just looked the other way and had faith that they would understand the text better on day two.  But then day two and three resulted in the same feeble results.  So today, the last day of our four day lesson, I was determined that I would see some progress.

So I started the day with a choral rereading of the article.  Then I did a quick review of the previous days lessons.  Then I showed them my idea of the author's central theme using my personal organized list of words that evoked a clear image from the text.  I was very clear and left the sentence on the board for review and possibly to be copied, or at least used as a sentence stem.  I paired the students up again for good collaboration and asked them to call me when their duo had written the central idea, just one topic sentence.  Again the sentences were a disaster!  Many of them weren't  actually sentences, but rather phrases, and if there was a sentence, it had nothing to do with the article.

That's when I got frustrated.   I began thinking, "What a waste of time! We could be doing so much more and learning than rehashing this same idea that my students obviously aren't mature enough to grasp yet."  I was about ready to scrap it all.  I just wanted to scoop down and take everyone's work and throw it in the trash.  Well, those were my initial thoughts, and luckily I kept my sanity and didn't let anyone know how very large and a little bit crazy my own struggle was.   Then my Common Core background thoughts started jumping into the conversation.  They said, "No, let them struggle!  It's good for them!  Their brain dendrites are growing and even if they don't get it right, they are trying!  They are reading text, and collaborating with others.  Let them continue!"  So I did and I was able to calm myself down enough to start focusing on them and hear their struggles.   I listened to their conversations and I was able to figure out a common problem they were all having.

The article contained an important metaphor that all students were using incorrectly.  That was why they were all off topic.  I realized, "Oh my gosh!  This is not their fault!  It is mine!  I didn't hit all the vocabulary I needed to to ensure this standard's success!"  So with this newfound realization,  I stopped the class, gave a little mini lesson on the metaphor, and redirected the students to begin again on their central ideas.  And you know what?   Now when they called me over to check their central ideas, they were right on task.

So today was a huge learning curve for me.  I'm glad that I took the risk with this new lesson.  It was hard.  It was challenging.  It did stretch everyone involved, including me.  And it was so worth it!  I know my students grew today.  They didn't give up even when their teacher wanted to.  They persevered and kept working with their partners.  They kept discussing their problems so that I could hear them and determine where the missing link was.  We worked as a team today to complete a standard that is very difficult, and new for most.   Identifying the author's purpose and central theme is always a struggle, but a good one.

Before Common Core we didn't make these students struggle.  The philosophy was that if a child failed it was detrimental to their well-being.  Now we're learning that we created a generation of students that don't know how to struggle, and maybe their brains aren't wired for it because we didn't provide the struggle to create the pathways.  Now, I could sit back and feel horrible due to the fact that I was one of those teachers that believed that type of faulty philosophy, but I won't.  What I will do is learn from my mistakes, and make sure that the students I have right now, in the present, are given the opportunities to push their mental capacities to the fullest.  Struggle is good!

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