Tell Me More and the Value in A Bad Idea

If you participate in the iThink training from the Rotman School of Business, you will learn interesting and practical strategies such as the causal model, pro-pro chart, and the ladder of inference. The sessions are also a stellar example of how to run professional development for teachers- thoughtful, engaging, fun. I use all the strategies from the iThink training in my classroom, but recently two activities have taken a more prominent role in my practice.

Tell Me More…

The first activity is one that has had a significant influence on the way I talk in my classroom. During the training, it was just a “getting to know you activity,” but it helped me be intentional about the way I speak to my students.

In the “tell me more” activity, participants take out three objects they have with them- a picture in your wallet, your favourite pen, the cookie you snuck in your bag and didn’t have time to eat, etc.

In pairs, person A asks person B to “tell them more” about one of the objects. Person B tells person A a short narrative about the object. Here is where the real value comes in: Person B must listen and pick something that their partner said, and ask them again to “tell them more” about an aspect of their narrative. They are NOT allowed to say anything else.

This is an intense exercise in listening. You are not allowed to interject with your connections or stories. You are not allowed to guide the speaker into giving you specific details. The focus is on listening to the speaking and getting to know them by asking for “more.”

Students end up telling stories that can be very personal. A keychain sparks the story of a grandmother’s legacy. A rainbow button reveals the story of an inspiring grade 7 teacher. A water bottle provides the revelation that a student is struggling with balancing sport and school. It is a really beautiful way to begin a course. It is also a beautiful way to talk to students.

“Tell me more about…” allows students to take control of the direction of our conversation:

“Tell me more about why you chose this introduction strategy.”

“Tell me more about why you chose this passage to support your ideas.”

“Tell me more about the challenges you’re facing with this writing assignment.”

This phrase forces me to listen before I dispense feedback and help. Over the past couple of years, I’ve learned that feedback is an art. You have to know when to give it, how much to give, and how to say in a way that will be heard. This simple phrase lets the student explain their thinking which in turn guides my next step.

The Value in a Bad Idea

If your students are struggling to generate ideas, this activity can be a lifesaver. In it, students answer the question – What is the worst idea for a birthday party? Students may be reluctant to tell you the “best” idea, but they respond when you ask them for the “worst.” After you generate a massive list as a class, small groups of students pick one idea and flip it. They must now sell it to the class as the best idea they’ve ever heard. They have to fall in love with the idea.

Not only does this activity build confidence for idea generation, but it is also an exercise in perspective. How might someone who is different then me see this idea? During Wednesday’s class, we were coming up with the worst ideas for schools. A student selected “no sports teams” as the idea that she would flip into a good idea. She took the perspective of a “fierce” mother with a child who was unable to participate in sports. What an exercise in flexible thinking.

My Rotman training was two years ago, but these activities keep coming back and helping me discover more about my students’ thinking.

Leveraging Conversations: Article of the Week

I thought I would start my tentative foray into blogging by posting the activity that I am most often contacted about by other educators. It’s also the activity that initiated the shift in the way I thought about teaching English. The initial idea came from Kelly Gallagher’s book Write Like This. If you decide to follow my blog at all, you will be reading about Kelly Gallagher a lot. He uses an activity that he calls Article of the Week to help students fill in the gaps of their background knowledge. It also exposes students to a variety of real-world forms of writing. The version of Article of the Week that I use is a modified version of Gallagher’s idea that I developed with my fantastic teaching partner Pam.

The reason I love Article of the Week so much is that it gives me an assessment opportunity for every English strand, (Oral Communication, Reading, Writing, and Media) every Friday.  This activity helps me to know my students. In other words, Fridays are good days.

The Article of the Week is essentially a period where small groups discuss an article. It sounds simple, but a lot of teaching and student reflection goes into making this work. The process starts on Mondays when I post the article (either teacher or student selected) that everyone needs to read by Friday. Half of the posts are articles students have to read, and the other half are videos (commercials, news, PSAs, movie trailers, etc.). The expectation is that everyone will come to class with notes on the article/video and questions to discuss with their groups. The first week I model what those questions could look like, and we play around with Q-Charts in class so that they become comfortable generating their own questions. I also explicitly teach the characteristics of productive conversations. If you are looking for a place to start talking about conversations,  check out Celeste Headlee’s 10 Ways to a Better Conversation.

The first round of Article of the Week is a diagnostic for me and a practice round for my students. As students discuss the article in their groups, I sit at their tables and furiously take notes on who is talking, who is asking questions, and who is trying their best to hide. I turn these notes into feedback that I give to students before the next round of conversations. I almost always have to discuss with someone about dominating conversations. Many students believe that talking a lot = a high mark. We have to work hard in the first couple of weeks to frame what good conversations look like and sound like.

Once students have had their conversations on Friday, they are expected to write a blog post over the weekend to capture their thinking. These posts are perfect for students to explore voice in their writing. They post throughout the semester, and their blog turns into their culminating project for the course.

Let me reassure you- I do not mark every single blog post.  That wouldn’t be fair to my students or me. My students need the time and space to practice and improve, and I need to eat, sleep, raise my children, and maybe read a book every once in awhile!

I read the first blog post and give feedback, and then I provide additional feedback during writing conferences throughout the semester. These conferences are student directed. I ask them to show me two posts: one they consider a success and one they want to improve. Together we pick an area of focus (voice, organization, word choice, etc.) and we look at the posts with that focus in mind. Students need to write more than we can read and assess because it will take time for them to establish themselves as writers. I need them to have some writing volume so that we can find areas of consistent need and make a plan for improvement.   I also expect them to refer to their feedback when they reflect before and after an evaluation so that I know they are thinking about their growth as writers.

I formally evaluate this whole process before midterms and finals. By then I have multiple rounds of assessment observations, conversations, and products from which to generate a mark.  This wealth of information gives me confidence in my assessment of my students’ strengths and weaknesses. It also gives me a lot of information about where I need to go next with my instruction.  Stay tuned for a future blog post about assessment and evaluation if you’re interested in thinking about this some more.

If you are interested in trying Article of the Week, I would recommend telling your colleagues about your idea so they can send interesting articles your way. Many of the articles I used were sent to me by other teachers, especially the teacher librarian (Thanks, Anne!).  A great starting place for senior classes is Desmond Cole’s article “The Skin I’m In”. This article never fails to start conversations. For junior readers or struggling readers, I recommend using the site Newsela where you can select articles and then change the Lexile level to suit your audience.

I would love to hear your feedback on this process. Feel free to ask questions and leave comments.

Happy Friday!