Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Shifting the Focus of Class: which skills do we teach to which students?

By Kim Miklusak

Last year I read this blog post by Kylene Beers.  I definitely recommend taking a moment to read and reflect upon it.  In it she highlights the difference between "who is taught what?"--that is, what reading skills do we teach to "struggling" vs. "highly skilled" readers.  Not surprisingly, most teachers report that they focus on paraphrasing and comprehension with "struggling readers," yet author's purpose and logical inferences with "highly skilled readers."  While she specifically focuses on the term "readers," I believe the skill difference she highlights crosses subject areas.  See the two charts here.

I've been reflecting upon this difference in my own English class this year as we continue to revise our curriculum at the regular and AP levels and as we have interdisciplinary conversations in our school.  Our "struggling readers" are those who would thrive on these higher level conversations.  Too often (and I am grossly overgeneralizing here--obviously not everyone is like this) we bemoan the completion rate of tasks and passing rate at the regular level.  Students are bored--of course they are!  We have heard on Twitter and elsewhere, "Would you want to be a student in your own class?"  Would we be motivated to read if we focused only on vocabulary and paraphrasing?  Even we as teachers have "more fun" in our engaging classes.

How then do we have struggling readers complete the comprehension portion of activities, so they are able to move on to the higher level skills and the engaging activities?  One way I am trying to work on that this year is by moving toward a system that I discussed at length with Mark Heintz in our history department and have seen Linda Ashida do in her Spanish classes: make the comprehension a requirement instead of a grade.

Students cannot participate in the higher level portion until they complete the foundational activities.  First we must ask ourselves: are the tasks I am having students do required to help them understand the text?  Do they practice skills that we could practice in other ways?  Or are they filler?  Instead have the bulk of class time be the engaging portion, and more students will want to do the activities to move along. 

Easier said then done, perhaps. Foremost, it is easier in a less linear course like English, History, or foreign language.  Next this requires giving up some control in your class: large group work and discussions are easy for the teacher, and they are easy for the student.  But do we know where each student is in terms of skills and content?  Shifting more easily between required work, large group work, and individual work allows teachers more flexibility in shifting the learning into the students' hands.  In a large group there are students who are not participating; those same students may not be following along in small and individual work, but in this case we know who they are, where they are, and we can remediate to help move them along.  And, ideally, the motivation is beyond the grade to move more students forward.

I will post more again another time on the actual practice of this once we are moving through our next full unit, and I will provide screen shots and student samples to let you know how it's going!  Right now it's slightly more theory than practice!

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