Planting Thought Seeds: Using Class Discussion to Support Students’ Short Answer Responses

September 18, 2017

By Travlyn Langendorff As a high school American Literature teacher, Travlyn knew that her students needed to develop their discussion skills. Through collaborative inquiry with her colleagues, she not only deepened her understanding of what it means to engage in substantive discussions, but also made discoveries about her learners, her teaching practice, and herself. Her knowledge gained through inquiry had a direct, positive impact on her students' ability to express their ideas through discussion and writing. “I am a complete idiot,” I thought as I attempted my first experiment in my Mills Teacher Scholars inquiry. “This is never going to work, and I am going to look stupid in front of my new colleagues.” Hired after the school year started, I was invited to join the Mills Teacher Scholars group at my school after my colleagues had already started their inquiries. Eager to make friends and worried that my teaching skills were rusty after a five-year hiatus, I took the plunge. In classic “me” move, I decided to use the inquiry process to take on the most challenging issue of my teaching with my most difficult class: Third Period, or as I thought of them, The Period of Doooooom. The goal? Improve my students’ class discussion skills. So there I was, faced with an 11th-grade American Literature class filled with recently reclassified English Learners, most of whom had already decided to go to continuation school. Several students had 504 plans and some had IEPs. None read or wrote at a high school level, with the exception of one student. I was determined to do a better job of getting these students to have substantive conversations about the texts we were reading. I am a talker, so facilitating class discussion is tough for me as well, as I tend to feel convinced I know a lot more than my kids do. True story: this inquiry taught me otherwise. The Plan As I began to watch videos and read articles, it seemed like the most effective class discussions had a high rate of participation. So at first, to gather data for my inquiry, I just counted the number of students who participated and tallied the number and types of their responses. I tracked group and individual responses and started awarding points for participating. However, after a few months of this counting strategy, my students’ responses were not any more substantive. Then a colleague in my inquiry group asked me a question: What do you mean by substantive?

Meeting the Needs of Struggling High School Students Through Putting Student Voice at the Center

March 1, 2017

As a teacher of struggling readers, I find myself constantly grappling with what to do with my high schoolers who are reading multiple grades below level. They walk in and out of my classroom each day and I see their sense of self as students waver as they are confronted with harder and harder texts. The need to serve them is immediate but also daunting. No two struggling readers seem to have the same need and the research about supporting readers is vast and divergent. In an effort to design the best strategic reading class for 14 incredible students who are challenged by reading each day at my small school in the Fruitvale of Oakland, I leaned on best practices. I had learned about the practice of “Mazes” to support reading comprehension during my Masters program and decided to adopt it as a weekly routine. Mazes are short passages where every 7th word has been omitted. Students then choose the correct word from a choice of three as they read the passage. They have 3 minutes to do so and are measured on their number of correct selections and their words per minute. This provides both the student and the teacher immediate data about silent reading comprehension and fluency. I hoped that weekly practice with this exercise would help them develop their fluency and comprehension and, as they saw their own improvement, develop their confidence in themselves as readers. A few months into the practice I found that students were not seeing growth, nor was I, and collectively we were feeling more and more frustrated around the practice. With my Mills Teacher Scholars facilitator, Jen, I began to think about the forms of data I could collect about the practice in order to gain a better understanding of whether it was helping meet my learning goal for students. She suggested that I provide students more space to reflect on the practice and share with me their own opinions about the plateaued results on the exercise. I decided to embed an additional data source into my routine in the form of a post- Maze reflection that asked students to look closely at their progress. I found myself unsure about how best to serve my students as I read their reflections that were bleeding with frustration. One student wrote, “In my opinion Mazes are not helping my reading because I am still only getting 13 correct answers.” It was answers like these that caused me to dig deeper and turn to the students even more around the routine. The class was for them, and their needs were urgent.