Since my last post, I have had a lot of questions about what exactly it is that I do with my students since I don't use a textbook or lecture at them.  Like I said in that post, I don't know if I can give anyone a formula, script, or "quick fix" for how to teach without a textbook or using lecture; I only know that I am striving to engage students by using sound strategies that encourage students to practice their thinking and learning skills, making their own meaning.  My main role is to set up my classroom so learning and meaning-making happens.

In order to fulfill that role, I tend to write a lot of my own curriculum materials (including readings) that align closely with  local teacher-created objectives derived from our state standards, use a lot of articles from Scientific American, and have students use online interactive activities and tutorials that match up to our local objectives.  Textbooks have a lot of good information, but they often contain a lot of informational noise that is hard for students to drown out.  And, since my students have been trained that memorizing everything in the text is what school is all about, my only choice was to take the book away so they could do some real, focused learning.

Teachers that want to do this also need to be able to let go and let the students do the learning.  One of the hardest things I do during a class period is stay of my students' way and let them learn without interfering and forcing my understanding of the concepts on them. To satisfy my inner control freak, I lead students through the activities by posing questions for group discussion and providing logical and natural segues and transitions, but I make sure that I am not the sun around which classroom instruction revolves.

The only way I know to show you how to teach without lecturing or using a book is to give you a snapshot of my lessons.  Below I have provided a run-down of some of the activities I did this week with my Biology students as we come to the end of our Ecology Unit. You can take a peek at the learning objectives for this unit here, and the plans below apply to the start of Objective #4, ecosystem interactions.

  • Have students do their daily journal at the start of class.  It focuses on introducing students to the vocabulary of our next objective on ecosystems, while trying to make connections back to our previous one (on community interactions).  If you are interested in how I set these up online, you can view this post.  
  • Engage students in the inherently fascinating study of ecosystems through an activity designed to show them the relevance of ecosystems by introducing them to bioaccumulation and biomagnification.  (This is also a preview of some of the concepts they will need in our next objective.) Using a short video and readings from internet sources, the focus is on why we care about ecosystems and how substances move through them.  
  • This is then connected to the first part of the essential question for this objective, "How does energy flow through ecosystems?" by having students transfer what they learned by predicting how energy would flow through ecosystems.  Students do a lot of discussion along the way, with me asking guiding questions and summarizing the results of their discussions.  (Their takeaway?  That it's through those community interactions they learned about in the previous objective.  Or, as one student put it, "Eating.  Eating is how energy flows through ecosystems, and how pollutants get passed.")
  • The class ends with students take a quick exit slip in Edmodo so I can see if they are making that connection.
  • Review the connections we made the day before, as well as seeing how well they make connections between the vocabulary words to explain how energy flows in ecosystems through their class journal.  The answers to these journal questions are great formative assessments.  I get an e-mail with their answer when they post a comment, and I can scan the answers as they come in to see if students are still in the "I saw a list of words and I just defined them because that's what I'm trained to do when I see a list of words" mode, or if they are starting to make connections between concepts.  If I see that too many students are in definition mode, I can address that at that time.
  • Students do a vocabulary activity that activates their prior knowledge (which they started to build the day before in their opening journal and in today's journal) as well as forces discussion about the words in their teams.  The strategy I happened to use for these words is called a Partner Knowledge Rater, which I modified by adding a column called "Rename the word in 3 words or less" to get students to put the meaning of the words in their own terms (it's well understood by my students that I will not tolerate any copying of definitions from any source.  They know they will be made to redo any assignment or answer where I see that happen).  They can't own any understanding of the word until they put it in terms their brains come up with.
  • At the end of the period, I have students take an exit slip in Edmodo that asks them to use the words to answer the essential question for the objective ("How does energy flow and get recycled in ecosystems?").
  • Do the opening journal question, which is trying to get them to see the "end result" of the learning, as well as give them more practice with using the vocabulary words to explain the energy pyramid pictured.  We start trying to make connections between the vocabulary and the concepts the I can statements want them to learn as a class and through team discussions.
  • As a result of the exit slips from yesterday, it was determined my students needed to sit down and really work with the words more in order to understand and apply them, and not just memorize their definitions (old habits are hard to break). So, I decided that using the Frayer model was called for, only we would be doing a modified form of this using Studyblue, converting these into flashcards from which they could study later.  On the cards, they had to write analogies for the word, find a picture that represented the word, and then tell me what the word was not.  (Sidenote: Nowhere in the directions did it say to write the definitions of the words.  This threw about 50% of my students, who, being in answer mode rather than learn mode, asked me where they were supposed to write the definitions.)
  • After making their cards, students must record a short podcast about how the words were connected, and must use all of them to explain verbally how energy flows and is recycled in ecosystems.  They are still working on this, and will be working on this the next time I see them.
  • Students take a progress check on the individual objectives, or I can statements, in Edmodo so I can see what understanding they have gained of them before they start the next learning activity that is designed to directly teach them.  After looking at them, I realize that about 80% of the class already has a good mastery of them, except for one I can statement about how decomposers recycle energy through ecosystems.  This will help me plan specific activities for that objective and to help the 20% that still need help on the other objectives next week.
(You can view the Ecology Objective #4 Learning Activities I developed for this topic here.)

What I do may not be perfect (my lesson plans are in a constant state of remodel), but it's what I have found does right by my kids.  And my students constantly amaze me with how much they can learn on their own this way--and how much they don't need me to stand up and deliver content to them.  They can do their own learning, if we only provide them with the right tools, the time, and the right activities.  It just makes sense.


12/04/2011 09:19

I have been circulating this to everyone at my school this week. Thank you for documenting and sharing an incredible example of meaning making, not just memorization.

12/09/2011 15:40

Great stuff. Bold moves, well conceived, carefully implemented. I hope to emulate.

12/09/2011 16:53

Thanks so much for the comments, both of you. It's taken me a while to start thinking like this when I plan, but the payoff is huge (even if you don't see some if it in your students until years later).

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