Friday, September 14, 2012

Raising Risks

A couple years ago, a brilliant colleague named Kristin shared a culture-building exercise she does with her students.  In the first days of school, Kristin gives her students a blank seating chart and challenges her students to, in the first two weeks, know the first names of their classmates as well as something about each of them that can't be inferred based on appearance.

As one of my goals this year is effectively building classroom culture, I challenged my students to complete this assignment with some guided activities and, after these two weeks, I asked them to share what they found. I also asked them to flip these seating charts over and respond to these questions:

1. On a scale of 1-10 with 10 being the highest, how comfortable do you feel raising your hand in class to ask a question?

2. On a scale of 1-10 with 10 being the highest, how comfortable do you feel raising your hand in class to answer a question you aren't sure if you're answering correctly?

3. On a scale of 1-10 with 10 being the highest, how comfortable do you feel engaging in cooperative learning exercises with you peers?

4.  To become more comfortable with these these skills, I could...

5.  To become more comfortable with these skills, my classmates could...

6.  To become more comfortable with these skills, my teacher could...

My first realization is that I need to conduct such a survey more often.  Not only do this assignment and survey align with two of my professional goals this year on soliciting student feedback and improving classroom culture, I also obtained insightful feedback.  Here were some of my most interesting findings:

  • In my two English 9 classes and my English 10 class, the area of greatest discomfort was the first, asking questions.  Due to my lack of psychic powers, this response was concerning; how am I to know if my students are confused if they don't tell me?  I shared this concern with them; now I need to help them gain this comfort.  

  • In my Honors class (some call this pre-A.P.), the area of greatest discomfort was responding to a question they aren't entirely confident about.  An interesting disparity between these two types of learners, but not entirely surprising; they are generally perfectionists who pride themselves on their academic prowess so I can see how appearing "wrong" may be a fear.

  • In response to the fifth question, some students said their classmates could be more kind and approachable, get to know each other, invite students to join their group work, could ask good questions and could smile.

  • To #6, some students said I could talk about me, provide feedback on their in-class responses, call on a variety of students, ask follow up questions, and help them get to know each other better.
I shared their responses, the above only being a small sampling, with their classmates and hope knowing what they need for each other will improve our learning environment.  I also certainly learned about some elements of classroom culture that I can work on.  I'll conduct a similar survey later in the semester, using this survey to monitor my improvement on these two professional goals. 

Monday, September 3, 2012

On Feedback

As I suggested in my last two posts, much of my summer learning centered around feedback, spawning learning goals focused on this concept.  I'm excited about how a couple of these ideas have manifested themselves.

Carol Dweck, whose lecture I had the fortune of attending, made me rethink the way I offer students feedback on their learning. Last weekend, I sat down to grade my first set of essays for the 2012-2013 school year--you know school is in session when you're sitting down with sophomore essays on a Saturday night.  In the past, here is what my feedback on one of these essays may have sounded like: 

"Great essay.  You are eloquent and your ideas are organized well.  Consider how providing at least three examples for each point you make can provide a more substantive body of evidence for your argument.  Excellent job with grammar and mechanics." 

Thanks to Dweck, here is how I gave feedback on an essay showing those same qualities this fall:

"You worked hard on this essay.  I can tell you put a lot of effort into your diction as well as into your structure.  (The constructive criticism would remain the same.)  You have challenged yourself to master grammar and mechanics, and it shows." 

Nuanced disparities, yes?  Here is the central difference, however.  In the first comment, I praise the student.  In the second, I praise the student's effort.  Though one may find the difference inconsequential, Dweck suggests that when we attritute a student's success to who he is instead of the effort he puts in, we cultivate a "fixed mindset" in our students, a term Dweck defines as an understanding that one's intelligence is finite as opposed to malleable.  A student comes to learn his successes are the result of who he is, not the effort he puts into his work. 

Conversely, when we suggest to a student his effort toward mastery has created his success, that student understands with increased effort comes increased success, a term Dweck calls a "growth mindset".  In actively cultivating this growth mindset, we teach them that one's success is not a tendency we're born with, but rather something he must work for, giving all students equal opportunity for success.  How powerful.

Thanks for putting in the effort to read this blog.  You challenge yourself as a learner.