Sunday, March 6, 2016

Easy Day Starter

I’m guessing that most teachers have an assignment that begins the classroom day, allowing the teacher time to take roll and lunch count.  For me, it was Daily Oral Language.  I had transferred sentences which needed editing to my own masters so that one master lasted all week.  Students edited the sentences and then, when I was ready, we corrected them orally.  I suppose, as beginning assignments go, it was acceptable.  Based on my current reading, though, I have a different idea.

Later in my classroom career, I came to believe that many assignments in the classroom were, to the teacher, easy or “do-able” that weren’t necessarily so for all the students in the class.  You see, I think that we all fall victim to the notion that things which are simple to us are also simple to our students, when too often they aren’t.  If I’m correct about that, what should a teacher do to give students work that requires a bit of thought, but doesn’t defeat students.  Nearly 100 years ago Lev Vygotsky developed the concept of “Zone of Proximal Development” (ZPD) to go along with Piaget’s idea that a child’s development proceeds on it’s own pace.  The idea behind ZPD is that children learn best when the tasks they are given are near their current level of development and that task which are too advanced for a child’s current skills result in no permanent learning.  Add to this the knowledge from brain science that skills must be practiced at regular intervals to become permanent and I think we can see the requirements for good assignments.

What I propose for a classroom starter activity is to write a single “good” sentence each morning.  If the topic of the sentence is engaging and background knowledge appropriate for the age of the students, more than one objective can be met in the simple assignment.  What I propose is asking a daily question which must be answered in one sentence.  Were I assigning it, I’d probably draft a week’s worth of questions and hand them out on Monday so that students could read all the week’s questions and get their brains working on each of the ideas on which they’ll write.  Questions might be something like:  “What makes someone a friend?”; or “What could make school better?”  Experience would teach the teacher which questions are the most fruitful.  After the few minutes that it took for the teacher to take roll, the teacher could ask two or three students to read their sentences, and allow a few others who really want to read theirs.  By my experience, I’m guessing that the volunteers would be numerous.

Assessment would be twofold.  First, if a student read a sentence which was incorrect, a bit of immediate coaching could take place.  Second, at the end of the week, the teacher would have a concrete example of each student’s thinking, sophistication in expressing it, and ability to draft complete, and perhaps complex, sentences.  Having current examples of student work would allow the teacher to mentor all students quickly and one-on-one: the stronger students could be encouraged to develop new patterns of expression, while weaker students could be coached to improve on their greatest needs.

As I’ve reported earlier, all students need a deep well of common knowledge to think creatively and to enhance their learning.  Think of skills and knowledge like a pyramid.  As we grow and develop, it is on a base of broad background knowledge.  The sentence-writing would allow students to practice fundamental writing skills and to practice accessing their background knowledge in a creative endeavor.

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