Monday, July 18, 2011


Calvin Coolidge once said, "No man ever listened himself out of a job."

I find this especially true in teaching...and especially hard to do.

1.  Listening requires halting one's own agenda and truly taking in the moment as it is.
2.  Listening may mean abandoning one's plans and adjusting one's course, perhaps rather significantly.
3.  Convention: Teachers are trained to teach, not listen, and students are taught to listen, not teach.

If it's so difficult, why do it?
1.  Because there's no better way to gauge where your students are.  Indicators can be wrong or biased.  Secondhand accounts are not complete.  And your students are TRYING to tell you.  Why not listen?
2.  Because it establishes a sense of worth, rapport, and belonging.  Someone who is listened to is someone who is valued.  We want to be valued, and we do better when we feel we belong.

So how do you do it?
Ahhhh.... This is where I fail a lot.

1.  Slow down your own feedback.  I come from an area with rapid-fire conversation.  This doesn't always work in the classroom.  Sure, it's fun for drilling and can be good for joking, but it doesn't help for listening. 

So to do this:
a.  Stop.  After you have asked your question, don't explain. Shut your mouth.
b.  Engage your student with your eyes.  Don't break eye contact. 
c.  Count to five after your student stops speaking to make certain he or she is truly finished.
d.  Resist the urge to make an evaluative comment and ask a follow up question.  This is really hard, and at first, students will want reassurance.  I sometimes say, "I really want to know what you think" or "I really like hearing your thoughts."  This is less evaluative than my gut response but still indicates my pleasure in the continued conversation.

2.  Check for nonverbal cues.  Are your students fidgeting? Are they leaning forward engaged? How do they participate?  Who talks to whom?  What makes them laugh?  Does one laugh and not another?

3.  Put yourself out there, especially if you want negative feedback.  Positive feedback is needed, but sometimes you need to get at the negative emotions to reach the positive ones.  Start with your own example, e.g., "When I was in school, I hated when...," or even start with yourself, e.g., "I really hate when I ______ in class."  Identifying the problem is the first step to finding a solution!

4.  Incorporate what you heard into what you do.  If you listen to what was said and then throw it out the window, then you have actually made the situation worse.  Act on what you have heard.  Even if you don't completely follow the students' advice, you can incorporate pieces of it into your plans--and draw their attention to it!  Besides, seeing their own plans in action and watching how they work is a step in becoming self-determining and self-sufficient--the end goal of all education.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Teaching Beyond the Test

Any teacher who says they don't teach to the test either doesn't have tests or is lying.

We are judged by how well our students do, and tests are the conventional method of measuring that.

Yes, we teach to the test, and there are also good reasons for doing so:
  1. A bunch of really smart people worked a really long time to come up with this test.
  2. These smart people gave this test to a lot of other students along with other measures to make sure that this test is both reliable and valid.
  3. Somebody had a (good) reason for thinking that mastery of the topics on this test would predict future success.
In short, the tests that are out there, like them or not, have been well-researched and, well, well-tested.

But we all know people who do well on the test and can't. do. anything. else.

And, I'm pretty sure that the problem is this:  we have taught to the test and not beyond it.

Teaching beyond the test means taking the skills from the test and finding where they are used in real life.  Once this has been pinpointed.  BRING BACK the real life experience and teach something truly authentic IN YOUR CLASS.

Yeah, I know.  Somehow we are supposed to supply the knowledge and eventually the kids will just move right on up Bloom's Taxonomy.  Sure, there are some interventions like worksheets on "critical thinking skills."

Let me just say anecdotally that I am not seeing how our current method of teaching higher level skills is outstripping the Asians who teach by rote memorization--and I have spent the bulk of the last 12 years of my life looking at this.

However, I will say that one thing that makes a difference in both places appears to be the use of these newly acquired skills in TRULY authentic learning situations (i.e., something more than the "learning in real life" section of your textbook).

So how would you go about teaching beyond the test?

Here are some things that have worked for me:
  1. Look at the test.  It has been well-researched and widely tested.  It has been assessed for reliability and validity.  What are its questions like?  What is it trying to test and how does it attempt to do so?
  2. Read about who the test is for.  Does your student fit that group?  Does your student WANT to belong to that group?  How can you help your student succeed? Consider cultural/age barriers.
  3. How does this test correlate to real life activities that your student would feasibly be expected to achieve in the future?
  4. How can you feasibly bring this real life experience into your classroom?
And here would be some examples of what you might do:

1. For a DIBELS type (or other phonics) test of nonsense words.  Goal: Teaching sounding our nonsense words. Bring in (or print) a bunch of flyers from a different locale.  Also provide a map of the area with a school and the stores located clearly on it.  Give students an amount to spend and have them write directions of how to get there.  They must then read them to the teacher/other student successfully to get their prize.  Obviously, all of the place names will be nonsense to them.

2.  For a TOEFL type listening/reading response.  Goal: Given previous knowledge, to respond in mixed media and in real time to a problem. Play a brief segment from Oprah or some other self help talk show.  Follow this with an email or question to Dear Abby/Ann Landers on a similar topic.  Students should write or speak a response.

3. For EFL/ESL students preparing for school interviews.  Goal: Expressing themselves clearly despite the interference of electronic devices.  Make them successfully use a video/taped speech to direct their fellow students to find or do something in the class. 
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