Monthly Archives: October 2011

Invisible Targets

Objective-based teaching is something I’ve internalized. Students need to know the desired outcome and how to get there before we can expect them to perform. Whether we call them learning objectives, learning goals, or (now, apparently), learning targets, these roadmaps for students are a crucial part of learning.

But are they the only part? German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer wrote, “Talent hits a target no one else can hit. Genius hits a target no one else can see.” It makes me wonder a certain wondering that has been creeping around my brain for some time now…. If we make learning targets too simplistic and explicit, are we drawing students away from those invisible targets that lead to true innovative thought? Is there room in a learning target for experimentation? For discovery? I think there can be, if one writes and explains the target with care and intention. But I also think that there is more to learning than “hitting targets,” and there’s more to understanding than performing a certain skill like a circus pony pawing the air for a sugar lump. I tell my students, “You are not a parrot. Don’t just say what I say and do what I do. Show me something that is 100% you.”  It can be frustrating to attempt to nourish 21st Century skills such as creativity and adapatability while simultaneously breaking lessons down into dry, compartmentalized goals of various sizes.

This whole conundrum prompted some off the clock thinking. As teachers, we are trained to ask ourselves “What do I want my students to learn?” as a starting point when crafting objectives/goals/targets. So I sat and asked myself, “What do I *really* want my students to learn? What do I wish for them, to be able to do by the time they leave my class for the year?” I came up with the following list.

Things I Wish for My Students, for Them to Be Able to Do

Notice details.     Write outside of class, to express and discover.     Extract thematic ideas from texts–ideas that are unique and insightful.     Observe life and share realizations about it.     Stand up straight and speak out.

Bring things in to class that relate to what we’re learning.     Revise–truly revise–their own writing with a ruthless pen in search of perfection.     Use language that is fluent, beautiful, and complex.

See education for the true opportunity that it is.     Become comfortable with quiet and solitude.     Search for truth.     Be able to adapt to an ever-changing world.     Think with fierce independence.

Know what CREATIVE is/be it.     Get past the “right” answer.     Put their energy to use.     Tell stories.     Ackowledge the beauty, genius, and talent in one another.     Fight for the changes they want to see in the world.

Believe in their own power.     Overachieve.     Push themselves.

Know, as Tolkien did, that not all who wander are lost.

All of this is my target, really. This, and a whole expansive field teeming with invisible ones. I just hope that I manage to express this to my students, alongside the daily learning targets we shoot for together.    

Sophomores and the Amazing Technicolor Literary Analysis

Writing in a fluent, thoughful way is such a crucial thing to teach students. Teaching writing is my favorite thing to do as a teacher–I just love watching students work through their own ideas, seeing them put an assertion down on paper that is theirs and theirs alone. Literary analysis is one form of writing that I focus on with my sophomores in particular, as they realize the potential of fiction and poetry to state underlying truths through symbolism and figurative language. It is an awesome thing, but that does not mean it’s an easy thing. Weeks need to be spent building scaffolding that helps students learn to interpret, extract themes, and form opinions about texts on their own. All along the way, I have them continually write short analyses. Of course, my expectations for the very first one are extra simple (the student went beyond mere summary and used some type of textual evidence–great!), and continue to become more extensive as time goes on (for their final assignment, they are expected to do a double analysis and comparison piece on a classical poem and lyrics from a contemporary song, and are expected to have developed insights as well as the ability to explicate examples of figurative language and the rhetorical effects upon the reader… Whew!). On the earlier assignments, I give students a lot of descriptive feedback to help them learn which steps of this new thinking task they need to develop.

There’s just a couple problems with feedback, though–   A. Sometimes, students merely gloss over it and/or don’t understand it.    B. It. Takes. FOREVER! I have four classes of sophomores. That’s a lot of essays. If I take just five minutes (which I’ve learned is fairly impossible) on each student’s assignment, it still amounts to a total  of seven and a half HOURS to give feedback on a single paper. While I’m willing to devote that time at the outset, when students are still floundering around in a sea of new expectations, I just can’t sacrifice that type of time once my students start gaining independence in their knowledge of how to analyze. At that point, it becomes their job as well to keep track of how they are progressing toward mastery. So how do I make sure I’m giving adequate formative assessment, my students know what they need to do to reach their learning objectives, and I don’t need to be committed to an insane asylum after days and days of reading beginner literary analyses? The answer is colors!

I got this fantastic idea from a very wise co-worker of mine, Ms. J. Last year during this unit, she created a step-by-step chart that asked students to outline various required features of an essay using specific colors to indicate specific things. I modified it slightly to fit a new assignment, and turned it into a PowerPoint that I had my students follow step by step. (You can see/download that very PowerPoint by clicking this: [analysisfeaturingcolors].) This activity–essentially a self-evalutation workshop–is wonderful for many reasons, which I’ll here expound:

-This kind of thing is deceptively fun. Once colored pencils/markers are involved, happy kindergarten memories come back and students feel at ease rather than intimidated by the complicated thinking they’re being asked to do. Also, they actually take deliberate time to search for each element so that they can color as much as possible.

-Colors make things as clear as day. Ask a student “Did you identify any literary devices?” and they may say, “Uhhhhhhhh….” However, after they’ve been given time to look for and color code the spots where they’ve identified literary devices, it’s easy to ask and definitively answer, “Do you have any green on that paper? Where? How much?”

-At a glance, students can see how different elements of writing, such as context, a thesis statement, and textual evidence go together. It’s no longer a big glom of words on the page–it’s a transparent, intentional thought process on paper. Also, when it comes time for grading, the teacher can also see instantaneously if the patterns are looking good or not so good. Grading of each paper has been reduced to half a minute rather than five-ten minutes.

-Students are assessing themselves. They are looking at each individual requirement/expectation/goal that pertains to the task and are asking themselves “Did I reach this goal? If so, where? If not, what do I need to do to get there?” I required a short written reflection along with this activity–it sets up self-reflection perfectly.

-Colors are not for analysis writing alone. Just match up each category of your rubric with its own color and shazam! You’ve got an activity that is engaging, useful for formative assessment/self-assessment, makes kids think, saves you time, and makes the world a little more colorful. What’s not to love?

It’s continually astonishing to me how the power of visual elements in teaching can spur excellent thinking, reading, and writing. Try out this method in your own classroom, and post how it goes over. Also, if you can think of any additional modifications, please share them as well! (P.s. Write yourself a Post-It right now to add colored pencils to next year’s required supply list.)