By Sally Barnes
It’s that time of year again! We get to sit by the pool, read the books we’ve collected over the past few months, spend time with friends and family, and maybe get a few minutes to reflect on our year and think about what’s to come. The last couple of years have been an adventure and have really forced me to revisit my initiative as a teacher, particularly asking what can my students do, and what are they doing?
I recently heard the amazing Paul Emerich France speak at a conference, and he perfectly captured some of my “teacher thoughts.” He talked about personalized learning and gave five myths about this type of learning. Myth #2 was that “personalizing learning meant that curriculum must be interest-based,” and the reality is that “interest and engagement are not synonymous.” This reminds me of one of my favorite texts I’ve read as a teacher: Disrupting Thinking, Why How We Read Matters, by Kyleene Beers and Robert Probst. In this book, there is a section called “Rethinking Relevance,” in which they discuss the difference between interesting content and relevant content and how it engages and connects students to what they’re learning. This reading has led me to my “formula” for teaching: interesting content + consistent interaction + authentic collaboration = learning for all.
Here’s a quick breakdown of my thinking:
Interesting Content: Are we connecting with our students’ organic interests? Are we tapping into their worlds by piquing their curiosity and hooking them? Beyond that, are we making this content relevant? Are we connecting their interests to what we’re learning and back to their lives? The “interesting” piece hooks them, but the “relevant” keeps them coming back to internalize the information.
Consistent Interaction: Are we allowing students to interact with one another, with us, with texts, with resources, etc.? Are they frequently switching modes of communication to gather and share information? A simple equation could be interaction with texts + interaction with peers + interaction with us, or more familiarly, an IPA (integrated performance assessment).
Authentic Collaboration: Are students working together for a purpose, or are they working together because they “have to”? The difference here is key: we aren’t having them work in groups to get the task done more quickly or because we don’t think they can do it alone. They work in groups because they learn to gather information from their peers and work together to create something to share what they’ve learned with the class or with me.
I think about this “equation” when I think about the 7 Steps.
Interesting Content: Looking at Step 7 (having students participate in structured reading and writing activities), students should be reading and listening to materials that capture their attention through both the text and the task. Even the most exciting text is inadequate if not structured appropriately. How are we supporting our students to understand the interesting content and make connections with relevance through strategies for reading and listening? I also see the importance of Step 5, using visuals and vocabulary strategies to support learning. These strategies for vocabulary acquisition are incredibly important for understanding and internalizing the content.
Consistent Interaction: This reflects the 7 Steps perfectly as they are specifically designed to create a language-rich, interactive classroom. Let’s break it down:
- Teach Students What To Say: Even students who aren’t sure what to say in class should be interacting with each other and with us as teachers. There are phrases we can coach them to use, such as “may I please ask a friend,” that will initiate interaction between students. Just the key communication skill of asking for help or clarification will help them interact with us!
- Complete Sentences: Students must consistently use complete sentences to share their thoughts and ideas for interaction to be successful.
- Randomize & Rotate: We work with students all the time and they never know when their turn is up! Being consistent about randomization/rotating around the class can lower the affective filter and contribute to a climate of engagement, safety, and comfort in being themselves and having their own thoughts and opinions.
- Total Response Signals: Even a physical response is an interaction. A thumbs up/thumbs down shows that students are paying attention and engaged in the content. A ranking system shows us how well they understand or if they agree or disagree.
Authentic Collaboration: I wanted to save Steps 6 and 7 for this piece. To me, authentic collaboration happens so powerfully in the production phase. Allowing students to use structured speaking and writing activities and strategies will encourage total participation, a sense of safety, and the opportunity to contribute to the class and the conversations and work with their peers. By using scaffolded and structured strategies for learners of all levels, we open the doors for everyone to be able to receive input and produce output about the topic.
I wonder how these three pillars look in your classroom? How do you find and distribute interesting content? How do you maintain consistent interaction? And finally, how do you promote authentic collaboration among ALL students?
Sally Barnes is an educational consultant with Seidlitz Education and the current World Languages Coordinator for Klein ISD. She is currently collaborating on a book for LOTE school leaders and administrators with Anna Matis.