Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Selection Skill-set

I have been reading and contributing to the English Companion Ning almost since it began, and I highly recommend it to all ELA teachers. We have even been joined by social studies teachers who realize that their students have to read and write.

Today I reflected, after reading a fabulous blog post by Alan Sitomer and a response by Paul Hankins, there is very little discussion on the ning about students selecting themes, topics, novels, short stories, etc. Choosing yes; selecting no. The difference, as I see it, is that selection has a much broader palette than choice; selection, in fact, has a palette of infinite possibilities. As teachers, we feel that one of our primary responsibilities is to select topics, themes, books, exercises, projects, websites from which students must choose. This is probably because we, as adults, believe that students do have not enough experience to make Selections. This, as Hankins points out, is the iTunes model. He argues that education misses the boat by not providing students with an iTunes-like store of learning content and subject areas from which to choose. Actually, that store exists - for free - in both print (libraries) and digital (Internet) formats. The fact of the matter is that students don't use resources for learning nearly as much as envious "digital immigrants" want to believe. They do, I think, have practice in the necessary sub-skills, but not as these skills contribute to the process of Selection. By and large, as I have pointed out over the last two years, students are weak at Selection (in fact, they don't want to do it) - at least at the middle school level. It is a niggling bother in my mind that this is true.

Is it possible to ignite student to want to Select their own learning objectives and objects? Is it possible to teach Selection? How would students practice and scaffold Selection?

First, the skill set.

As a teacher seeking sources, or as a researcher, or as a purchaser (iTunes, Kindle books, Audible, Best Buy, Kids R Us...), I want to sample and review the wares. How old is this idea? As old as barter.

Think about this: by grade 3 or 4 teachers expect students ("digital natives") to be able to complete simple Google keyword searches and find fill-in-the-blank information. Plug in a keyword, click search, and get a hit list of websites. Go to the "best" site and pull out the information. In fact, these students are, after a year of practice (I would hope) learning to use the sampling tools provided to them by Google: the URL and the language of the summary. Once at a site, they use the navigation tools (named tabs, nav panel, lists) to sample content. They have also been, since grade 2 or 3, using the same sampling skill to skim textbook and reading selections for keywords and headings. This is an essential component of informational reading instruction.

To review the sources and sites, students need to follow links and be able to quickly assess their value. For print and web informational text, this is called skimming. Today's students also need and want to access other students and adults who have used the sites. The coolest thing about Web 2.0 is the way it is changing informational sites to make the review process possible; think of all those sites with 5-star ratings (still uneven and untrustworthy, but developing).

Review also comes into play when the students plays a quick mental movie reel of "What I Know" at the beginning of the Selection process. It comes when students, after reading a novel, reflect on the themes and questions raised by the book.

Joined at the hip to Review is Questioning. Jamie McKenzie has written, and continues to write, extensively about this topic. The ability to frame good questions about topic is key to the Big 6 research process, to writing Essential Questions, and to Selection itself. After all, how can you direct your own inquiry if you don't have an inquiry?

Sampling, review and questioning are information literacy skills - invaluable and teachable (ask your librarian). They are practiced, even in teacher-led classrooms, frequently. But these skills alone do not equip students to select their own learning paths.

The last skill is probably most important to Selection. It comes into play before, during and after sampling and review. I call it ownership. Think about the last time you made a list of books, topics, spelling words, facts, famous people, literary terms. Didn't you own every item on that list? If you were unsure of an item, didn't it come off the list until you felt secure about it? It is not new pedagogy to state that students need the same ownership of topic in order to Select it - and then to do a good job of learning. It is ownership that makes Selection work as a pedagogy by scaffolding information literacy toward ownership. The trouble is, ownership is hard work, and many students are not comfortable with it. It is necessary to teach students how to identify and articulate their own interests and curiosities. No, they don't do this natively. Think for a second like a middle schooler. For most of your in-school life you have been doing assignments provided by a teacher. For most of your out-of-school life you have been reacting to information put in your face by the media or copying the interests of your peers and role models. It has been easy. Now all of a sudden a teacher says, "Select something you are interested in, review it to make sure you are interested, and narrow the topic so that it is manageable in X number of days." You panic! You say, "But I am not interested in anything! Give me a list! Give me a topic!"

The condundrum for the teacher is this: Research-based pedagogy points to the importance of student-led projects founded deeply in student interest - but students today, for all of the digital resources freely available to them, live in a smaller box and a narrower tunnel than ever before. They simply are not using those resources as tools for selecting those topics that do interest them deeply. This skill has been lost due to educational practice and learning-indifferent parenting. Turning this trend around becomes the teacher's prime responsibility.

[You can stop here if you wish and go buy Comprehension & Collaboration; Inquiry Circles in Action, a new book by Stephanie Harvey and Harvey Daniels. I got it in the mail yesterday. If you want an iTunes approach to this topic, get the book. If you want to practice Selection, read on and think for yourself about applying the concepts to your classroom.]

It really is quite simple to provide Selection practice. If every research topic is intentionally as broad as it can be ("the 1920's" instead of "Fashion, technology, crime or music in the 1920's"; "a Quick Topic that interests you today" instead of "A scientist"), students will be challenged to develop a deeper understanding of where their curiosities lie. There are many ways to nudge them:
  • What was the last book or magazine article that grabbed you?
  • Write or draw 10 things that you wonder about.
  • List 3 things your parents have made you curious about.
  • List 3 things your best friend likes that you don't like.
  • If you could ask the "top god" a question, what would it be?
  • Do fish sleep? is a my question about nature. What is yours?
Next should come sampling and review and more questioning. Go to the library, go online, take the beginnings of idea home for a few days (Harvey and Daniels call this "marinating in the material" - a great way to think of it!). I would use entry passes and exit passes in my classroom at this point to add some accountability to the process. If working in groups, bring results to the group and its accountability system.

Then you need to allow time for talking about the resulting lists, topics, ideas. Ideas need to be declared with confidence. At least a full class period--generally more--needs to be spent on Selection, before any research notes or reading or planning is done. This is like the deep learning of a new vocabulary word - the word needs to be explored and used in as many ways as possible. It needs to be owned.

Sounds like a lot of prep time, doesn't it? It will be. Students do gain confidence with their ability to Select, however, and confidence speeds up the process. What is the teacher's role? You need to organize the journey. This means creating timelines, creating groups, providing organizational tools and ideas (I like Grammar Girls little video about organization), guiding projects or outcomes, being a resource for materials and marinades, nudging when necessary, listening actively, collaborating with each group. I think this is fun, for the most part. Sometime,s it seems boring because I'm not really needed in the classroom. That is the hardest part.

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