Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Thinking of the Missing Link: A Report from the 5th CalADE Annual Conference (Part Three)

We have all been guilty of making reading irrelevant to students' lives. At the last session I went to at the CalADE 2014 Annual Conference, two presenters from Mt. San Jacinto College recognized the problem, but they seemed to chalk it up to a top-down system where required reading textbooks have become a risk of alienating some of our students with irrelevancy, not to mention the underwhelming critical-thinking and problem-solving skills that should be learned in our classes.

Dr. Aja Henriques and Jennifer Escobar prefer to serve what students need rather than appeal to what they, as teachers, like. They conceptualize a framework for evaluating and choosing readings in terms of class demographics, students' interests and experiences, learning goals set by both students and the teacher, length of a reading, genre, complexity, time needed to engage with the text, among other criteria.

In practice, Jennifer shares how she preselects up to 50 readings, conducts a first-day survey to find out students' hobbies, majors, etc, and then pares the reading selections down to the ones that can serve the students' goals for the entire class in the current term. In fact, this kind of reading selections adjustment is on-going. She also uses end-of-class surveys to evaluate the readings' effectiveness.

Education - and curriculum - is never neutral. One of the fields whose concepts the presenters apply is Critical Race Theory. Critical race theorists believe that race and racism are pervasive and permanent and that educators should focus on the intersections of racism with other forms of subordination. Thus, according to CRT, reading selections should discuss race/racism's role in U.S. society, provide an opportunity to challenge dominant ideology, exhibit a commitment to social justice, and incorporate interdisciplinary approaches. All students benefit from experience in reading "their world" and becoming an authority during the course.

If we don't bring student needs to the center of the process of selecting readings, we would continue to have students who are able to read but choose not to. Imagine using Shakespeare in a freshman comp course in a community college where students are comprised of many underrepresented minorities from lower socioeconomic statuses. It is this spirit of relevancy that allows teachers to even try letting students select their own readings as well as their own vocabulary words to learn. It is imperative that all classrooms develop 21st-century learners and leaders, students who think critically and creatively, among other measures. As reading selections resonate with students, we can expect to electrify and accelerate that awesome development.

This concludes my three-part report on the 5th CalADE Annual Conference.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Thinking of the Missing Link: A Report from the 5th CalADE Annual Conference (Part Two)

Meet Southwestern's Toolbox team. For years, the trio of presenters - a reading prof, a humanities dean, and an ESL adjunct - have been on the lecture circuit to inspire people with their teaching strategy that connects everything to thinking.

Like Mark at Miramar, these Southwestern colleagues do not use a traditional textbook to teach reading. Instead, they make their own lesson packets of well-chosen quotes and book excerpts, which infuse their desire to effect a thinking-centered education. A quotation from Alfred Whitehead was pointed out again and again during the presentation to drive home two important things a teacher has to decide: "What is worth learning is worth learning well."

A dozen tools - ranging from the usual "paraphrasing" [quotation marks added by me to denote a reading tool in this and subsequent paragraphs] to the more challenging "speaking in the author's voice" - were reviewed for the breakout session participants. Using their lesson packet for philosophy, the presenters had the participants experience what it is like in the classroom. First, we read two quotes - one from Albert Einstein and the other from Booker T. Washington - and practiced using the "title" tool whereby we wrote our own titles for each quote. This is an activity with no correct answers, as we were told. Rather, it is a great warm-up opportunity for original thoughts that everyone wants to hear during the whole-class sharing phase.

Then, we wrote our own answers to a questions about the "purpose" for Einstein and Washington to write those quoted words. Next, we did the same with a question about one "consequence" for humanity if we do not follow what Einstein and Washington say. When we read an one-page excerpt by an Indian author on the topic of happiness, we followed a 5-activity sequence:

  1. What is the author's "purpose" in writing the excerpt? We were told to be more specific than the usual 3 to 4 general purposes such as to inform, to entertain, to persuade, etc. We were also required to use clear and complete sentences.
  2. What do you think is the most "significant sentence" and why? This is not meant to find the main idea sentence. Rather, it should be a personal choice to validate.
  3. What "vital question" about happiness comes to your mind after reading this excerpt? 
  4. What is one "consequence" for our lives if we follow what the author recommends?
  5. Using the responses you gave and other thoughts you and your group may have had, describe how this reading affected your goals in life. Explain your thoughts in a brief paragraph. 

When a lesson is thus designed well and learned well, individual students can realize that they have minds that can think, and think very well, when given the chance. They will come to see reading and writing as natural and vital human activities that will be of value to them, both in their education and in their lives. That is the conclusion of Dr. Sylvia Navarrete, Dr. Joel Levine, and Ms. Yuki Yamamoto, and I couldn't agree with these presenters more.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Thinking of the Missing Link: A Report from the 5th CalADE Annual Conference (Part One)

"Our students do not demonstrate strong critical thinking skills." That is a sad comment on the state of our teaching, which I sometimes hear from teaching and tutoring colleagues alike. As I attended the CalADE 2014 Annual Conference this weekend, my intention was to focus on new ways to strengthen that missing link. I found three breakout presentations that were interesting:
  1. Infusing Impactful Reading Strategies into Basic Skills and ESL Classrooms, presented by Mark Manasse (Miramar College) and Dr. Sarina Molina (USD)
  2. OUR READING TOOLBOX: The Reading/Writing-Thinking Connection, presented by Dr. Sylvia Garcia-Navarrete, Dr. Joel Levine, and Yuki Yamamoto (Southwestern College)
  3. Framework for Evaluating and Selecting Readings for Developmental Courses, presented by Dr. Aja Henriques and Jennifer Escobar (Mt. San Jacinto College)
The point Mark Manasse makes seems right on. Our students are empowered by reading and responding to well-chosen socially transformative texts, along with a pedagogically sound developmental ed model. For his intermediate level ESL reading course, which is three levels below English comp, Mark does not use a traditional textbook. Instead, he chooses 3 Mike Rose's blog posts that address the issues relevant to his students. To make the authentic materials more accessible to his students, Mark utilizes USD's free service called Teaching Studio to create three adapted versions for each chosen blog entry using Flesch-Kincaid reading levels. He then sequences his assignments in a way that moves from less to more difficult, building the students' skill sets one on top of another.

He spends the first half of the semester, preparing his students to handle reading as a writing mentorship. The students define concepts and issues and summarize what they read, with tons of group discussions. Any grammar errors are addressed in the context of what the students produce, not simply as a discrete component of the course.

When it comes time to read Mike Rose, Mark discreetly put the students into various high, mid, and low groups based on his pre-assessment of them using leveled-reading tests. Each level receives the appropriate Mike Rose article to read and interact with. Therefore, there are three levels of interventions. Mike also adopts the methods of Reading Apprenticeship and has his students read through 4 lenses: a summarizer, a quote finder/analyzer, a question creator, and an illustrator.  These roles are the heterogeneous tasks in a homogeneous level.

Then, Mark further empowers the students by means of the jigsaw technique where he switches the student reading circles to the heterogeneous levels (high, mid, and low) with the homogeneous task (i. e. all the summarizers together, all the quote finders/analyzers together, and so on). A product of this phase is a poster presentation by each group. In his view, this approach provides multiple access points where the students can interact with the text in a deep way.

The reading project culminates in the students posting comments on the read Mike Rose's blog entry. I would say that Mark's presentation was the best of the whole bunch as clearly I see the results of an engaged community, not just ESL students passively learning discrete skills. Although the reading selections have been adapted, the issues remain authentic and the thinking and communication skills are practiced in an enhanced way. I can see why Mark and Mike Rose were so happy to hear the students' voice. Mark also comments that this approach is suitable for an accelerated model.

If you would like to read a summary of Mark's experiment dubbed "Mentor Text (squared)" and to download three files that Mark uses for his class, just click here.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Asking the Questions Right

ECC's Spacious Hall 
Exactly a week ago, several colleagues from our dept. participated in the fall PD Workshop hosted by the CATESOL's San Diego Chapter down at the Educational Cultural Complex (ECC) of the Continuing Ed of SDCCD. A couple of the breakout sessions I went to had a common theme of asking all the right questions.

Dr. Virginia Loh-Hagan, a professor, author, and reading expert, spoke about the academic need for students to focus more on the text that they are reading. Why? She explains thus:
Text-based questioning is an essential skill set for teachers...since it is through text-based questioning that we level the playing field so that all students can be successful and gain both knowledge and skills. When we ask robust questions that require reasoning based on evidence in the text, we ensure that even those students who may not have privileged experience outside school can be successful in meeting the high [academic] standards.
Dr. Loh-Hagan advocates against the traditional teaching method of accepting the "right" answer of a student and then quickly moving on because this practice "leaves many students behind." Instead, teachers should engage all students "by conducting a whole-group instructional read-aloud, with discussion along the way - and not waiting until the end."

Further, questions that ask for personal responses should be avoided because they "draw students away from the actual text and [favor] personal stories which cannot be opposed or argued against." In lieu of the usual text-to-person-connection-type of questions, better ones invite the students "to examine their otherwise unchallenged assumptions" and guide them to go back to the text to form opinions that are text-based arguments.

As well, we should push for higher-order thinking skills in our questions. A question like "Who are the main characters?" is not on par with one that asks for a comparison or contrast between an important character in a text and another character in another text.

Dr. Loh-Hagan's insightful criteria for text-based questioning and practical examples were greeted with a big round of applause.

Perhaps not coincidentally, questioning was also one of Richard Weinroth's most favorite methods for teaching writing. In his ESL class, Mr. Weinroth delivers his prompts by dictation, but he adds his own clever twist. His prompts are in the form of questions, and when his students follow his questions, their writing becomes so much easier to manage. The questions also facilitate peer interviews when the assignment requires writing about another student.

The moral of the story here? Good questions generate good answers.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

A Great Way to Bridge the Gap Between Book Learning and Real-World Learning

The latest issue of the "Grammar Teaching Newsletter" published by Cambridge University Press has this neat piece showing how easy it is to connect the grammar book learning with the real-world grammar noticing. Although the downloadable worksheet deals with modal verbs, the idea is applicable in teaching and learning other language points. Here is the link to the resource article: http://www.cambridge.org/grammarandbeyond/grammar-practice-activities/2014/09/bringing-real-world-grammar-into-the-english-language-classroom.