Putting the pieces together

Yukon IslandIMG_3319I’ve just been reading the latest Edutopia article to hit my inbox, “Avoiding the trap of Q and A Teaching,” by Petra Claflin. The article doesn’t apply to Storytelling lessons in all ways, because when we ask a story, we don’t know the answers to our questions. (Circling is a different ball of worms. There, traps apply.)

One of the suggestions in the Edutopia article is to let students try to solve or complete an exercise that the teacher is about to model. Students are more engaged when they know what they’re about to learn.

The suggestion resonated with me because of two recent experiences. First, Mira Canion and I are preparing a session for NTPRS on Can-Do statements and how using them can motivate students. They will serve as a pre-lesson exercise. Ask the class: “Can you tell someone about your hobbies?” They will learn that upcoming stories will develop their proficiency areas.

Second, I have just spent a lovely long weekend on Yukon Island doing Feldenkreis lessons with Gail French. These were movement exercises intended to help us walk with more energy. On the way, we explored knees, backs, breathing, and shoulders. Today was almost the best row of my life, because I figured out that a tracking exercise for my knee had solved a balance problem that I’ve been fighting all summer. But I digress. Gail started every lesson with a pre-test. We would stand, walk, squat, or breathe to find out what our bodies felt like in that position or movement before we started. Then we would do the lesson, and return to the test at the end to feel improvement.

During the past couple of years, an awkward frustration has seized me whenever I’ve used an Embedded Reading or even a story with new structures. The students often tell me that we needn’t have used the techniques because the reading or structures are “easy.” I threaten to give them the final version of a reading or story in advance so that they can see their improvement, but I never want to “scare” them to begin with. But maybe I should! Gail’s pre-tests didn’t scare me. They were just information. I looked forward to improvement. By the same token, if I don’t choose long readings or complex structures to begin with, maybe “pre-tests” will give those students who think I’m not rigorous enough a little more faith that lessons in my Russian classroom are directing them toward a goal.

4 responses to “Putting the pieces together

  1. Hola! Your last comment called my attention. Do you personally associate rigor with difficulty, with consciousnesses, with explicit purpose? If we are true to the principle that acquiring a language is a natural process, almost non-conscious, why to insist in pre and post tests?
    I am a teacher at a public school where we have been bombarded with assessments for the last year and I am sure will continue for the time being, however I have been resisting the assessment of the immediate learning process. We teach for June! don’t we?
    I have been thinking more in the idea of organic and integral assessments rather than testing. I stopped designing assessment instruments per lesson, and have moved into designing projects per unit. What is that we are teaching and what is that we are testing? Memorization of vocabulary? Application of grammar rules? Understanding of texts? Understanding of video? Understanding of audio? Fluency in writing and speaking? Proficiency? All of the above and more? For me and my students having the learning goals on the board -which include the list of target expressions- has become our compass. Being able to produce something at the end of the unit makes more sense; being able to play a complex game at the end of the unit, gives them more sense of accomplishment.
    Thank you for making me think!
    I am taking the summer to finish two programs: Mis cartillas (Spanish for beginners) and Spanish
    once-a-week for elementary. Any plans to visit NY or NJ?


  2. Piedad, I am so on board with you! (I wish I’d be in NY or NJ soon…Oregon and Chicago are on the summer plans. Too bad!) I am not interested in anything big or data-producing, just a question: Do you know what these three structures are (or can you manipulate them, or something like that), or with an Embedded Reading: What can you understand here? Nothing big or official, nothing written. Definitely teach for June!

    Then proceed as usual, and when I am certain that students have acquired some little piece, we make sure they realize it and go on.

    I am always happy that the kids thinks class is “easy,” but at least once in a while, I’d like them to recognize that they gain a lot as we work together. Just because it doesn’t seem like work, it doesn’t mean that nothing is working. I require rigorous attention to the lesson. Nothing else should seem “hard.”


  3. MIchelle – I really appreciate this post!! I, too, realized – just this June! – that I absolutely need to do the same sort of “pre” assessment of whatever I teach. I gave a survey to all of my classes at the end of their final asking what they basically thought of the class and what can be done to improve learning for THEM. Two of my classes were the standard answers that I had expected, but one class blew me away!!! This class was my “rockstars” – they learned SO much and were always willing to show that they learned – they knew how to play “the game” and did a great job. I saw such gains every day from this class, and we always had so much fun and had a great camaraderie. But they didn’t think so! In the surveys they said that they “did not learn anything”, that I “went too slow”, that I “repeated so much”, that it wasn’t “rigorous enough”. My heart sank. THEN…I pulled up the poster that Ben Slavic has on his website about Rigor in a CI classroom and it reminded me that I was successful in teaching them — I just wasn’t successful in explaining to them what “rigor” means in our classroom!!! Now I know better for next year.
    We as a department are also going the way of “can-do” statements and SLOs (student learning objectives) so they can “FEEL” and have some meta-analysis of their own learning. We are also going full-on with Standards based assessments and writing units together as a department. (if we can find time to get together this summer!! :-> ) I am SO sorry that I am not going to Chicago this summer — I have read about your and Mira’s presentation and really feel like I need it! have fun and Good Luck!!


    • Mary Beth,

      It’s so nice to hear that it’s helpful! (Mostly I gather things here that are good for me and that I want to find later. Selfish blogging.)

      If you are available July 12-18, I will have some time after the parent I’m visiting goes to sleep, or when she’s at her aerobics lesson! I would be happy to talk you through our presentation. We’ve had a couple of positive responses already, but more practice is always helpful for me too. Let me know!


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