Sunday, December 1, 2019

Hacking learning, again? Meh. Teach on.

Just before Thanksgiving there was a #HackLearning Twitter Chat. I did not participate but I did see the questions, obs or they wouldn't be included in this post.

And I mean no offense to the #HackLearning team, but I was a little hacked about these questions, and not the kind of hack to which these folks referred--and can I tell you how over I am "hacking" pretty much anything?

Let me speak first about my understanding of English Language Arts. I know that ELA has experienced a lot of changes and certainly many were informed by our venture into Common Core. The key to ELA is the phrase "language arts" with the emphasis, I think, on the word "arts." What are the arts of language? Reading, writing, speaking, and listening.

To the first question: What are the challenges of integrating English Language Arts in the content areas? Huh. You mean making sure that students can read, write, speak, and listen in math, science, social studies, art, music, PE, health, consumer science, etc.? Um, shouldn't that be happening by virtue of the fact that students are in each of the classes?

Okay, I'll stop pretending I don't know what they're talking about because they're talking about the likelihood that all of those non-ELA teachers don't have reading and writing strategies in their teacher toolboxes. Fine, but that's really easy to rectify. I'll come back to this.

To the second question: What are the advantages of integrating ELA in the content areas? I won't be quite so snippy because there are some interesting textures in this question. One of the first advantages is that students will stop thinking that reading, writing, listening, and speaking skills are the sole domain of ELA class and begin to realize that reading, writing, listening, and speaking are important in everything and all the time. However, it is important for students to recognize that reading strategies may be different in non-ELA classes just as writing strategies may be different.

The last question is a bit perplexing: What are some ways we can find time and resources to integrate ELA into other content areas? I think this third question is inextricably connected to the first. I don't think it's really a matter of time. I do think it is a matter of resources just as it is also a matter of inclination for non-ELA teachers in middle and high school who believe their tasks are to teach their content areas even as they are possibly complaining that students don't know how to read and write in their content areas.

A sidebar. When I taught ENG 101 at the university level, I had some colleagues who complained bitterly that their students didn't know how to write for their respective content courses. We'd already seen a wave or two of writing across the content areas which was exhausting for most freshman writing teachers who found the first thing we had to do was un-teach the five paragraph essay and help students understand the value of specific writing rules, like punctuation and capitalization (I kid you not). Weary of colleagues who gently berated me for frittering away the 15 weeks I had in ENG 101 and clearly not using that same number of weeks wisely in ENG 102, my writing colleagues and I had a little symposium with our non-writing colleagues. We had them review some freshman papers and score them using our rubric. The numbers were, as expected, all over the place. Interesting conversations ensued and a modicum of understanding might have been achieved. That didn't stop them from complaining because they knew they didn't have the skills to help students correct their writing in their classes and didn't want to spend any of their precious 15 weeks providing any kind of instruction for writing correctly in business or science or whatever. Stalemate achieved.

But let's take a step back. The majority of reading and writing in non-ELA classes is termed "non-fiction." So we're talking about students knowing how to use text features: titles, subtitles, graphs, charts, etc. Some ELA teachers spend a bit of time on such things, but quite possibly not enough although elementary teachers could fairly easily incorporate some coaching in their non-ELA blocks of the day. Non-ELA teachers assume students know how to read graphs and charts which they could have learned in elementary school, but might not have done.

Well, we need to take a further step back because my question to non-ELA teachers is this: what skills exactly do you need of your students in the areas of reading, writing, listening, and speaking? Or, let's focus just on reading and writing. And, I put it to you again, what exactly do you need them to do? Yes, you need them to read the word problems and take the time to read them. There's no special strategy for that though you could practice a variation on a close reading strategy to see if that helps because you need to help them understand the importance of content area fluency and comprehension which isn't just an ELA thing but a human being thing.

You need them to write in complete sentences and, because you're not an ELA teacher, you're not comfortable being the grammar and mechanics police. Well, if they're in middle school or high school, they should know better; however, if they have time and opportunity, they could do a quick check of their work using Grammarly. What I don't like about this kind of a tool is that they don't learn what they did right and what they need to learn how to correct.

There could be ways for students to keep track of what's corrected by Grammarly and, perhaps, in collaboration with the ELA teachers in your building find a way to create a writing workshop time or study hall. It would have to be by choice. Depending on your classroom and technology situations, there are ways way to gather this information so ELA teachers will have more targeted information and, perhaps, find ways to bring non-ELA texts into their classrooms.

As a matter of fact, that is one of my favorite things. Maybe every two weeks, the students work from their math, science, social studies, or other texts in their non-ELA classes. They use those texts for their independent reading. Wigs kids out a bit, which is fun for the teacher for a little while, but also reinforces that reading and writing skills are important. Period.

I think finding the time isn't an issue, not really. I think figuring out how to create assignments or think about student work is how and where language arts skills practice and development can be reasonably integrated into any other content area.

If you are looking for more concrete resources, you might check out Reading Non-Fiction: Notice & Note Stances, Signposts, and Strategies by Drs. Kylene Beers and Robert Probst. They quite literally wrote the book on the subject.

You might also watch this video focusing on teaching non-fiction, which is a significant clarification about "non-fiction" and what it is.

As you continue to think about language arts skills in content areas, it can be easy to be dismissive or distracted by so many resources that seem geared towards elementary classrooms. For example, in an Edutopia article published first in 2010 and then updated in 2014, some of the strategies might seem inappropriate for AP Physics or Math III or even high school social studies classes.

But here's the thing: you don't have to do those exact strategies. For example, the "stop and jot" strategy is one that is often overcomplicated, in my opinion. Sure, you might use some sort of a graphic organizer or worksheet for younger students, but for older students--middle school and up--just have them write in their journals or wherever. They write for 1 minute or 30 seconds or 42.3 seconds or whatever and they write to secure what they've just been hearing. Maybe they end up jotting down two things they remember and a question. Great! We like questions because questions help us know what kids are really getting, what they're really understanding, what they're thinking about, what kinds of connections they're making.

By having them write down what is essentially a learning summary, they are creating a hook to what they've heard and what they're retaining. They are creating what could become a framework for study and review.

Can you build on that? Sure. Use Wheeldecide or some other approach--craft sticks with a student's name on each stick works--to pull a random name or two. Don't belabor it, but doing a quick check also helps ensure that most students stay focused. And by chunking it with lecture or discussion or reading, and then a "stop and jot" periodically, students are more likely to be able to sustain and retain.

Here's another thing. You can start your chunking by talking and them jotting every, say, 7 minutes. Do that for a week or so. Then chunk for about 10 minutes, then let them jot. After a couple of weeks, chunk to about 12 minutes, then let them jot. I honestly wouldn't go much further than that just for retention and comprehension purposes, but by slowly extending the amount of time they go between jots, you are also helping them build stamina. Sneaky, huh?

So are some of these suggestions hacking learning? Or just some recommendations for helping students learn? You decide, and teach on.

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