Thursday, February 23, 2017

What's Not Up For Debate

When I was a first year teacher, my seniors persuaded me, somewhat against my will, to have a class debate.  Perhaps tellingly, I can no longer remember what the subject we were debating was.  What I can remember is that I had no idea how to run a debate, so consequently, students lined up on either side of the room, and just sort of... had at it.  Predictably, within seconds it devolved into a shouting match, with one girl fleeing the room in tears.  Never again, I swore to myself.

Sra. Ossman's AP Spanish students
Thankfully, this year in the BGenius lab, we have been witness to over 20 debates, and my colleagues have taught me that class debates are rigorous opportunities to promote critical thinking in reading, writing, speaking and listening. The key is to structure them correctly, and there are many ways to go about that.  So, if like me, you like the whole idea of hosting a debate in class, but are slightly intimidated by the prospect, here are some lessons we've learned:

1) Provide opportunities for students to research ahead of time.  In Ms. Hackman's AP Psych class, students spent multiple days preparing arguments about various theories of intelligence so they could answer any arguments against the theory they were assigned.

2)  Assign "sides" of the debate ahead of time, but allow students at some point to weigh in with their true feelings.  In Ms. Goebel's Chemistry class, students debated their assigned side of a debate about the benefits and consequences of nuclear energy.  However, as an exit activity, they wrote what their true feelings were about the issue after listening to their classmates.  In Mr. Foster's English class, students were asked to put their heads down on their desk and cast a silent vote about which debater was most persuasive.
Ms. Shin-Cooper's Human Geo class

3)  Actively promote listening.  Ms. Shin-Cooper requires her Human Geo students to restate what their opponent says before weighing in with their own views.  This simple technique reinforces the importance of internalizing the other side of the issue.

4) Use timing structures effectively.  In AP Spanish, Senora Ossman and Senora Heissel use stopwatches and are very systematic about how long each side speaks and rebuts, assuring for a controlled and equitable conversation.

5)  Find fun ways for students "invest" in the activity.

Mr. Crandall's APUSH Reformers
 In AP U.S. History, Mr. Brooks and Mr. Crandall allow students to dress up or bring props that represent the progressive reformer they've been assigned.  We saw some great acting that hour, with students speaking in first person as the reformer, and in some cases wearing costumes (and hilarious wigs!) to make it more real.

In fact, when Mr. Brooks brought his students down to the lab, he began the class with this famous quote:  "History doesn't repeat itself; it rhymes." This couldn't apply more to the debates occurring here at Buffalo Grove High School.  While all the debates promote similar skills and outcomes, they are all a little different from each other in terms of their logistics.  Ultimately, with a little planning, this engaging activity is worth a try in any classroom--there's no debate about that.

Friday, February 3, 2017

I spent my day brushing up on my French and Spanish alongside the students in Zaya DeNardo's classes.

 Zaya, fluent in both French and Spanish, taught her classes in the BGenius lab to demonstrate some of the vocabulary strategies she presented at our Institute Day.  In turn, this gave staff members the opportunity to see those strategies in action--it is this ongoing stream of targeted professional development that truly excites us here in the BGenius lab.

But I learned more than just the various ways to ask for a hotel room when in Paris.  Because whenever I watch world language teachers, I am reminded of what masters they are at formative assessment.   Zaya prompts paired off students to translate  a sentence on the screen, circulating the room as they do so, correcting when necessary.  With only ten seconds to respond, students get right to work, stopping when Zaya shakes a maraca.  If a common error presents itself, she stops the class and works through the issue with them.  They spend the whole period speaking, listening, reading and writing, with Zaya asking students to justify their responses to practice multiple choice responses.  There isn't a moment of class wasted; students are engaged throughout the period.

Looking back at my own days  as a  student, I remember that I was never more tired than when I left two classes:  dance and Spanish.  In both cases, my brain had been stretched, my synapses firing on all cylinders.  Now working so closely with the World Language teachers, I'm convinced it's because they have their hands in the skills at all times--like a dance class, the class revolves around supervised rigorous practice.   What's more, when it comes time to perform, students are more than ready.  No doubt, it's because Zaya  and her colleagues have set the stage for success.

Monday, January 23, 2017

What if you had a party and nobody came?

That was the deep-seated fear that my partner Jeff Vlk and I had when we launched the BGenius Lab last August.  Our mission, on the face of it, seemed simple enough:  to create a space for teachers to observe and model best practice that would also support our schoolwide literacy initiative.  

Our motto?  Keep the doors open--literally and figuratively.   We hoped to promote an openness to new ideas, and we also intended to keep the doors to our glass-walled room open at all times, allowing any staff member to observe and learn from colleagues.  

As for Jeff and me, we’d help design lessons, co-teach or simply be a guide-on-the-side to support our staff. With the full-throated support of our Principal Jeff Wardle, API Jill Maraldo, and the rest of the leadership team, we introduced the concept to the staff at our first institute day and then hoped that since we had built it, well, they would come.

What happened in that first week, and has continued to happen every week since then, has been nothing short of stunning.  On our opening day of school, our first customers were an Honors Geometry Class coming down to study vocabulary.  By the end of the first quarter, over 200 classes had visited the lab, and we’d worked with nearly 100 members of our staff.  By the end of the semester, we’d served  over 400 classes and nearly every student at BG multiple times.  

We’ve seen kids on their hands and knees equipped with spoons and puffballs to learn about natural selection.  We’ve watched the art students sketch while the AP Psych students discuss hypnosis.  We’ve brought in student tutors to help our kids learn our shared reading annotation strategies in nearly every subject.

And unexpected things have happened too:  our French teacher and our auto teacher collaborated on a project; we conducted mock interviews with our Business students to prepare them for the world of work.  And one of our favorite lessons was when the AP Spanish students engaged in a speed-dating activity where they dressed as famous Spanish thinkers and introduced themselves to each other in a quick rotation (all in Spanish, of course!)  

One draw to the BGenius Lab is the large size of our room, and the mobile furniture that allows staff to experiment with groupings and activities in new ways; our multiple screens allow students to share their work with others.  

Charlotte Danielson reminds us that for learning to take place, there needs to be a culture that supports it.  What BG teachers have shown over and over this semester is that that culture very much exists.  We have been amazed at what our colleagues have taught us--how they manage transitions during lessons, how they scaffold reading and writing instruction, and how they bring joy to their work every day.  We can’t wait to see what 2017 brings!