Sunday, 10 March 2013

Checking the Pulse--A Vital Practice

You know those doctor shows that take place in a hospital's emergency room with doors bursting open and paramedics shouting out vital signs? I'm always amazed at how quickly they give the information and how seamlessly doctors take it all in before even reaching the operating table.  Nothing is overlooked, the patient's weight, ethnic background, blood pressure, or even how he was found.  With all of that information in hand, the doctor then makes the best decision she can to help that patient.

Teaching is no different.  Before we act, we need to consider our students' vitals in terms of reading and writing.  We need to understand where they've come from, what their strengths are and what they struggle with.  
Sure, our situation may not be as dire as in an emergency room, but it still begs the question, "What are we doing to check the pulse of our readers and writers?"

Like emergency room doctors, we need efficient techniques to find out this vital information.  Here are some possibilities that I've witnessed in our RLA classrooms.

  • On Demands:  At the beginning of a reading or writing unit, students produce a sample writing piece or demonstrate reading skills before any lessons are taught.  The teacher can then confirm and/or adjust a logical set of mini-lessons based on the results.
  • Partner Talk:  By talking with their reading or writing partner, students explain their prior knowledge for a given lesson or try out a new technique during a read-aloud.  The teacher, circulating around and listening in, gauges where students are and what they are thinking.
  • Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down:   With this less verbal technique, students answer a question with a thumb up or a thumb down (i.e. yes or no), and the teacher can adjust her plan based on the results.
  • Fist of Five:  Students answer a question by voting with their fingers (i.e. five fingers is the most and one finger is the least).  This option allows students to process the question deeper by having to rank their feelings or experience across a range.
  • End of the Lesson Share:  To wrap up a mini-lesson, the teacher can call on a student or two to share the work they have done. Hopefully it will show progress towards the lesson's teaching point.  If not, the teacher knows she'll have to readjust her plan. 
    Google Form Results
  • Exit Tickets:  At the end of a lesson or small group conference, students write down their take-aways or lingering questions about the teaching point.  The teacher can then sift through them and make groups for follow up teaching.
  • Google Forms:  Students answer a Google Form survey.  Their answers are generated in a spreadsheet that is easy to read and rearrange.

Of course by implementing these and other vital techniques, we can make better informed decisions for our next teaching moves, but there are additional benefits as well.  By using these strategies, we are engaging our students more by accessing prior learning, working as readers and writers in real time, and synthesizing and reflecting on meaningful learning.

Not only that, as teachers we can focus on what our students are taking away from our lessons instead of what we're doing in the classroom.  I don't know about you, but when I share how lessons went with my colleagues or ask them about theirs, I often just talk about the moves I made as a teacher.  Many times, I'm assuming that my students learned better as a result of them.  With these techniques though, I can ground my assumptions in actual tell-tale signs that my teaching was effective.

So the next time you're heading into your classroom, be sure you've got a tool or two ready to check your students' vitals. In the meantime, if you have another great strategy for checking the pulse on your students, leave a comment.

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