Thursday, October 27, 2011

Week 8

Description of During Reading Part I 
   When assigning a reading assignment, the objective is not merely the act of reading but the comprehension of the text by the reader. Comprehension can best be described as: "The act of constructing meaning." Comprehension is a verb, an action, an activity. As such, it is something that must be demonstrated to students. During comprehension, connections are formed between information and the student. The great question then becomes: "How do we insure our students comprehend?"

   Two good ways are questioning and text structure. In order to ask effective questions, one must be aware of the three states of information. These states are:

Literal: Information that is explicitly stated in the text.
Interpretive: Information that is implicitly conveyed through the text.
Application: Information that is beyond the text.

By formulating questions that address these three types of information, the teacher can gauge the amount of comprehension the student has achieved.

Application in History
    Reading is a fundamental part of the study of history. History without text is merely conjecture. In order for history to be relevant subject matter, it must have direct application to current affairs. Merely being associated with the present by being the past is not enough to warrant the study of history. Events and people in history must have a direct application to events and people in the present. It is through the relationships that develop between man and economy or States and gender or commodities and society that we began to see the multiple causality of events. Multiple causality, relationships, the interrelations of time and space are the real lessons of history. When history is reduced to names and dates it becomes irrelevant and thus expendable. 

In previous blogs I have explored cotton in the construction and destabilization of the South's economy. A literal question would determine whether or not the student had read the material and could locate information within the text. An example follows:

What did Eli Whitney invent?

This question addresses a key component of the text. The answer, the cotton gin, is one of the main topics of the discussions. If the student has not identified the cotton gin within the text then it is necessary to re-teach, re-read, or at the very least, review the material. Literal questions tend to determine levels of retention, but not high level comprehension. 

The next type of question would be interpretive. An example follows:

Did Eli Whitney live in the nineteenth or twentieth century?

The preceding question addresses another key component of the text, the time period. However, the text never explicitly states when Eli Whitney lives. In order to discern this information a student must "read between the lines." Since the text places the invention of the cotton gin before the start of the Civil War and the Civil War was from 1861-1865, the answer would have to be: nineteenth. The purpose of questions like these is that they demonstrate that the student is making connections between various pieces of information in the text that aren't explicitly tied together. Interpretive questions give the teacher the opportunity to explore the level of comprehension the student has achieved and check for understanding. 

The third level is application. An application question asks the student to take a concept, derived from the text, and apply it to another piece of information outside of the text and show the relationship. This is the highest level of comprehension and evidence that the student is fully comprehending the text. An example follows: 

How is the blockade of the South in 1861 similar to the financial and trade embargo enacted by the United States on Cuba in 1961?

This question asks the student to take both literal and interpretive knowledge from their text and compare it to an outside event, in this case: the embargo of Cuba. The purpose of a question like this is to encourage students to think critically and determine relationships between information and concepts. In the case of this particular question, the ties between economy and political stability is explored. The embargo of Cuba, just as the blockade of the South, greatly destabilized the economy. The ultimate effects of both acts was a reconfiguration of the agricultural sector. In Cuba, the commodity was sugar, in the South, cotton. By asking the students to concentrate on the similarities, rather than the differences, the teacher encourages examination, by the student, of "big picture" thinking. 

Ultimately, all three styles of questions are necessary. It is impossible to answer an application question if the literal questions haven't been addressed. By utilizing reading guides that address the three types of comprehension, the teacher can identify and encourage comprehension.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Week 7

Before Reading Strategy (BRS)

Before reading strategies are intended to engage the reader. The BRS also assesses the student's relevant prior knowledge and interests. A BRS can be used to build a common knowledge base for successful reading. By pre-teaching essential vocabulary the teacher can develop concept knowledge and then label that knowledge with the appropriate vocabulary term. The key to all of these benefits, from a common knowledge base, to stimulating schema, is that BRSs engage the learner in the material.

Engagement can be broken into two fields: cognitive and affective. The cognitive aspects concern what goes on in our heads and effects our intellectual interest. The affective aspects center around our motivations. What then engages students? technology, movement, manipulative, relevance, choice, colors, textures, smells, debates, pictures, games, and many other things. Just as the hardest part of moving an object at rest is the initial push, so it is with students and their motivation. The key to the entire lesson rests on the level of engagement that is achieved during the BRS. If students do not see relevance, do not see some value in the activity, then it is unlikely that they will be able to master the material.

There are many types of BRS that can encourage engagement. The following is a brief list of some of my preferred strategies:
Scavenger Hunt
Word SortList-Group-Label
Book bags
Concept map
Opinionairres/ Questionaires
Story Impressions/Text Impressions
Contrast Chart
Picture Map


Application in History
To study history, we are asking the student to travel back in time. The goal is to portray the past in such vivid detail that it is not only understood, but experienced by the student. There is ample research that shows an experience will persist in a person's memory far longer than text. The challenge is to transport a student from the 21st century to the 4th CE, 19th CE, or even 8th century BCE. To do this, the student needs a place to land, and a motivation for traveling. By engaging the student with a BRS, we, as teachers, can insure the student's invest in the lesson. It is only through their cooperation that the lesson can transcend simple information and become an experience. The student needs context, relevance, and an interest in the material being presented. Through a BRS schema can be activated, tying the student's experiences to those of the past. 


Example of Before Reading Strategy in US History

To continue with the general topic form week 6, we can explore a BRS applicable to cotton, Eli Whitney, and the Cotton Gin. A good BRS for describing a process is the Picture Map. Basically, the students draw a series of events that represent the process being studied. For this lesson, I would ask the students to draw the method by which cotton goes from the field to the market. The materials needed are simply pens, markers, crayons or any writing tool and blank paper.

This strategy could begin by creating a master-list of everything that is made from cotton, based on the student's contributions. After creating this list, I would ask the students if they felt that cotton was an important part of their lives. Since they, literally, wouldn't have the clothes on their backs without it, it wouldn't be a far jump to show the relevance of cotton in our current day to day lives. Having established the importance of cotton, the process by which it is transformed would be explored using the Picture Map strategy.

First, the materials would be handed out. The students would be put into groups and asked to draw the process by which cotton goes from field to market. After they have drawn the process they will share with their group their work. After the students have shared with each other, we will determine a master process that I will draw on the board/ overhead based on the contributions of all the students. After we have developed a class process, we will examine the actual process. This youtube video is a great way to bring the ideas together:

Finally, the class could begin reading the article/text on eli whitney, or transition into the vocabulary lesson outlined in this blog in Week 6.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Week 6: Disciplinary Literacy

In order to teach vocabulary effectively it is necessary to remember a few important details. First, use words that are conceptually related. By grouping vocabulary words together by concept (like master cylinder, caliper, and rotor...all have to do with brakes) we can develop a concept specific vocabulary in which the words are all related. This helps build language around things. Second, teach words in context before giving the academic vocabulary. By placing the word in context we are able to see the word as it relates to other words, activities, or ideas. For instance, if I were to say, "The caliper compresses onto the spinning rotor." the reader would already be able to understand that 'caliper' and 'rotor' are related and that the caliper has a movable element to it which can be made to compress, while the rotor is also movable, probably in a circular fashion. With plain definitions, the relationships and the activities between words remains in the frontier of knowledge.

The third idea in teaching vocabulary is to use words which have 'high utility.' 'High utility' refers to the amount with which a person could use the word in their general communications. For instance, 'caliper' would be very useful to someone who worked on car brakes but to a ballerina, practically worthless. When teaching a word with high utility the teacher is awarded the opportunity to use repetition to reinforce the word. The student becomes more comfortable with a word the more they hear it until it becomes a part of their vernacular as well.

The fourth idea is to limit the number of words being taught. My Spanish textbook is an excellent example of this. At the end of every chapter is around 50-80 words. I end up learning the cognates and the high utility words and glossing over the rest. This is not due to an incapacity on my part, but rather the sheer volume of the vocabulary becomes overwhelming and I tend to focus only on those words which have immediate value. The same is true with English vocabulary. By only teaching 3-5 words, or 5-10 words at a time, the likelihood of a student remembering the word is greatly increased. When the teaching of these words are coupled with repetition and introduced in the manner outlined in the preceding paragraphs, success is almost guaranteed.

The final key point is to differentiate between receptive and expressive words. If, as a teacher, one wishes for their students to use their vocabulary terms it is important that they learn expressive terms. This are terms with which students may better express themselves. The process by which a word goes from being unknown to known can be explained through three terms. The word moves from the 'frontier,' to being a receptive word, which means it is understood when other people use it, and finally to expressive- the student uses the word in their everyday life.

A helpful list of vocabulary teaching strategies follows:
Knowledge Rating Chart
Word Ad
Gallery Walk
Word within a word
word web
graphic organizer
ABC works

TOPIC 2: ENGAGEMENT-An Introduction
Engagement is a 'before reading activity' that is used to peak the interest of the readers. It is important because it initiates real learning and comprehension. In order to engage students it is necessary for the activity and the text be related in such a way that relevance is shown to the reader. Engagement activities usually involve the students 'doing' something. By doing, we mean actively engaged, like drawing, using a manipulative or making something. These activities can greatly increase a student's interest and comprehension of textual resources.

An example of an engagement activity is to have students draw the process of something, as best they can. Afterwards, they can present the information to their classmates. Next, the class will collaborate on the most thorough process by using collaboration. Finally, any key elements that were left out can be clarified by the instructor. With the students fully engaged, the lesson can then be moved to a reading assignment. The key to the engagement is that it activates schema, builds upon it, and then introduces new information in the form of text. An invaluable resource to be sure. The technique could be used with any discipline and any lesson.
Vocabulary is vital to understanding historical texts. Having said that, it is necessary to identify the largest challenges facing readers of historical texts: 1. They are extremely academic in language. 2. They can be very, very boring. In order to alleviate these two concerns, engagement, to heighten interest, and the use of vocabulary techniques-to increase understanding- are absolutely vital for teaching history. In the following reflection, I will demonstrate a possible technique for engaging students while teaching vocabulary related to a historical topic. 
It is generally agreed that Eli Whitney changed the world when he invented the cotton gin. To introduce this concept to a class serves as the basis for understanding the economics of the South during the 19th century, events leading to, and effects of, the Civil War, the textile industry and the role it played in the Industrial Revolution and countless other key concepts of American History. The problem is that most students have no frame of reference for cotton except that their Fruit-of-the-looms are made from 100% of it. The vocabulary that is necessary to understand the cotton gin is: 
The engagement activity will allow the teacher to utilize these words repeatedly, in context, before defining them. Basically, cotton bolls will be handed out to the students and they will be put to the task of removing the seed from the fiber. After about five minutes, the students will be asked about their experience, "Was it hard or easy?" "What were the challenges?" "What kind of tools would have helped?" After a brief discussion, the teacher introduces a cotton gin replica (available at Before using the machine, the teacher defines the vocabulary terms. Now that the students have intimate knowledge of the boll and fiber, learning the function of gin will come more naturally. Finally, the teacher demonstrates the removal of the seed from the fiber using the gin. Now the students are ready to read about Eli Whitney and the cotton gin. 

I think this activity would be extremely effective. First, the activity that provides engagement has no wrong answers. The activity would lower affective filters and activate multiple parts of the brain as the students used critical thinking and motor skills to remove the cotton seeds from the cotton boll. Second, any frustration that was experienced during the exercise would only increase the interest in the gin. The students would be able to see the real-world application of the gin and understand how it would save time and labor. Finally, through touching, hearing, talking, and reading the terms, the students would most likely have moved the terms from frontier, where they began, to expressive, as they did during their examination of the engagement activity.

All in all, these two strategies offer great structure and rationale for introducing complex ideas and unusual vocabulary into the classroom environment. Through engagement and structured vocabulary instruction it is possible to combat the number one complaint of students studying history: "Why does it have to be sooooooo boooooring?" Well it doesn't have to be. And now, it never will be again.