Get your students out of their desks and learning by doing. Organize students into collaborative groups of three to five and encourage meaningful talk. Limit teacher talk to twelve to fifteen minutes in a 45-minute class. Use the rest of your class time for actively engaging students in learning. Gordon Wells said in The Meaning Makers (Heinemann, 1986) that all learning is the guided reinvention of knowledge. The teacher creates situations where students, through discussions, reading, writing, and observing come to understand information. Instead of lecturing, writing notes on the chalkboard for students to copy, teachers need to consider developing hands-on, motivating learning experiences. As teachers it’s important for us to understand that copying notes from the chalkboard is not note-taking because the teacher, not the student, is doing the note-taking. Note-taking is a demanding activity that asks students to determine important information and then write their notes in their own words. In the next e-newsletter, I will address note-taking and offer various ways to teach this high level thinking process.
Tap Into Students Social Natures to Make Learning Active
Students love to talk. They do it well. And it’s a great way for them to enlarge vocabulary, observe the thinking of peers, and clarify ideas. Here are some ways to involve students in paired and small group discussions.
Turn and Talk. Ask students to turn to their partner and discuss a question, word, project, video, book talk. This is a simple, tried and true way to involve students in meaningful talk. Remember to ask partners to share with the class.
Learning Buddies. Invite students to discuss a short text, a book, video, blog, wiki, or article. Help students set guidelines for their discussions.
Peer Revise and Edit. Organize students into partners or small groups and have them read each other’s drafts. Using a rubric or writing criteria, partners can suggest ways to improve the content, mechanics, and usage.
Study Buddies. Most middle grade and middle school students don’t study because they are unsure how to study. This type of review asks students to think about what they’re read, viewed on line, learned, and their written notes. Set aside one to two class periods and provide pairs with suggestions for studying. Students can:
Create high level questions they believe will be on the test. Show them that words like why, how, evaluate, compare, contrast, lead to questions that have more than one answer. Good questions always have more than one answer and use text details and/or inferences as support for answers.
360 Degree Math Partnerships. Put whiteboards all around your classroom. Have students solve math problems at the board. Stand in the middle of the classroom and observe students. Immediately offer support to students who “don’t get it.” You can also have students work together so that the one who understands can show how to think through the problem to the student who requires help. This gets students doing math during class and allows the teacher to spot problems immediately and offer support.
Organize Cross-Grade Projects. Develop projects with teachers on your team and/or with students in lower grades. Students can work together in different classrooms and in the library. Try some of these suggestions:
- Older students become reading buddies to younger students. Once a week, set aside time for students to read together and discuss their books.
- Older students listen to younger students read their writing and provide feedback on content.
- Peer partners can design and film a video.
- Peer partners can create a website or blog and continually update it.
Let Students Teach Each Other. As a teacher when you have to teach, you immerse yourself in a topic so deeply that you can think, read, speak, and write about it with ease. The same holds true for your students. The pyramid suggests that teaching results in the most retention of a topic. Here are ways that students can teach one another:
- Use Jigsaw. Give pairs or small groups sections of texts to discuss and then teach to the group. Texts can be magazine articles, online pieces, sections from a content textbook or chapters from informational texts and literature.
- Organize Panel Presentations. Have small groups become experts on a topic and plan a panel presentation that teaches the class.
- Develop Teaching Blogs. Organize students into groups and give each group part of a topic to study. For example, for human rights, one group canexplainthis concept according to the United Nations, other countries, and interviews that students conduct; another group can give examples of violations of human rights and how each one was handled; a third group can study human rights from an historical perspective; a fourth group can delve into people who advocated for human rights, what motivated them, and how they changed events. Using a blog, students can teach one another by posting findings and inviting other groups to respond.
- Teach Younger Students. Challenge older students to develop active-learning lessons on making inferences, solving equations, conducting an experiment, etc. To teach these lessons to younger students means older students must have a deep understanding of their topic.
- Peer Book Conferences. Once students have conferred about a book with their teacher, ask them to pair-up and confer about a book with a partner. Partners document peer book conferences and turn their write-ups into the teacher. See form at the end of the newsletter.
Integrate Speaking and Listening in Active learning Activities
The Common Core asks teachers to involve students in speaking and listening activities. Here are some suggestions that work:
- Present monthly book talks and develop standards for presenters and listeners.
- Argue for a claim in a speech in addition to writing essays.
- Write and perform a readers theater script based on a specific text.
- Conduct interviews in front of the class. Interviews can be between characters from a book or to explore a student’s expertise on a topic.
- Write and perform a dramatic monologue. Students’ monologues can be based on an historical figure, a famous scientist or mathematician, or a character from a book.
Embrace the Workshop Model
Reading and writing workshops are active learning teaching models. A read aloud and mini-lesson open workshop. Students spend most of class time reading books they choose and writing about topics they choose and care about. The teacher makes the rounds and holds brief conferences with students, leading her to figuring out which students require longer conferences; she also organizes student partnerships so students can confer with and support each another.
The Principal’s Corner
I find that frequent walkthroughs let me know whether teacher or student talk and engagement dominate a class. A great way to support teachers who need to consider the active-learning model is to buddy them with a colleague who uses it. Invite the pair to meet and discuss their teaching styles and lessons. Cover the class of the teacher who would benefit from observing active learning in action. Suggest professional books and articles for the pair to read and discuss. Try to find funds to send them to a state or national conference.
Know this: change will most likely not occur quickly. And that’s okay. The gifts of time and reflection as well as support can move a teacher to different levels of class management.
Ask your librarian or resource teacher to suggest articles from professional magazines. Here are four professional books to investigate:
- Comprehension and Collaboration: Inquiry Circles in Action by Harvey Daniels, Heinemann, 2009.
- Talk About Understanding: Rethinking Classroom Talk to Enhance Comprehension by Ellin Oliver Keene, Heinemann, 2012.
- Teaching Reading in Middle School, 2nd Edition by Laura Robb, Scholastic, 2010.
- Action Strategies for Deepening Comprehension by Jeffrey Wilhelm, Scholastic, 2002.
Student’s Name ______________________________Date ___________________
Peer Book Conference Form on Independent Reading
1. Jot down some notes on separate paper that reflect what you and your partner discussed. Use the prompts below to spur the discussion.
2. Turn in to your teacher the completed form.
Partner’s Name: ______________________________________________________________________ Title and Author of Partner’s Book: ______________________________________________________
Preparation Checklist: Came with book _________ pencil _________ form _________
What genre was the book? Can you give two or three examples that support your designation?
Choose one of these prompts, discuss it, and jot down the high points of your conversation on the back of this form or on a separate piece of paper.
✦ Retell a favorite part.
✦ Discuss the information you learned.
✦ Explain how the book changed your thinking about a topic or idea.
✦ Describe two settings and explain how each was important to the story or text.
✦ Explain one key conflict and the outcome.
✦ Discuss a character or event you connected to and explain why.
✦ Discuss why you think the protagonist changed from the beginning to the end.
✦ Explain how the information you read about can change the way we live, save lives, help the environment, and so on.
✦ Select a favorite illustration, photograph, or passage from the text and explain why it is your favorite.
✦ State a problem a character faced and explain how it was resolved. If it wasn’t resolved, explain why.
Evan Robb is Principal of Johnson Williams Middle School and author of: The Principal’s Leadership Sourcebook, Scholastic, 2007