Thursday, July 10, 2014

Invasion of the Pod People

Notes from facilitating this morning that I thought were important enough to highlight:

Laura's Rules for Facilitation (TM) (Really, "Things to Consider for Facilitation"):

  • What can you do to get students to ask questions of each other?  ("Don't underestimate the value of student to student conversation.")
  • What will you point out if students don't?
  • What instructional points do you want to make?
  • What will you do to ensure a positive, questioning (not correcting) discussion culture?
Strategies for Dead Silence during discussion:
  • "Do you understand what I'm asking?"
  • "Check your partner" (and listen in, and figure out who you want to call on based on what you hear)
  • Do a quick boardwalk with the each student tasked with writing down at least one question for another group on a post-it or in their journal
  • Be super sensitive to student shut-down
  • Plan ahead -- prompt students to participate during board preparation ("I would love for you to share that during the class discussion; in fact, I'm going to ask you about it.")
I'm probably not alone in being good at pointing thing out during discussion if my students don't, but not being nearly as good at getting them to talk to each other.  I do frequently fall back on think-pair-shares whenever the silence gets too heavy.  And I usually start a whiteboard discussion with a gallery walk, but not usually with the explicit instruction to develop at least one question for another group.  I think I've been generally weak on having instructional goals for whiteboarding problems beyond, "have all the students see how to get a right answer", which is pretty lame, but fixable!   

Something I've been pondering in the back of my head is room arrangement.  My Cooperating Teacher from student teaching sold me on the benefits of front-facing paired desks for seating.  Students have an obvious think-pair-share partner (which can be usefully manipulated during my monthly seating-chart mix-ups).  It's super-easy to make lab groups of 4 by having every other row turn around to work with the table-mates behind them.  And for students who have trouble focusing, you don't add the additional challenge of having their natural focus be their peers rather than the front of the room.  

On the one hand, I'm super comfortable with this mode of teaching at this point.  I like what it does for behavior management and supporting students who need help in focusing.  On the other hand, it's really hard to make a whiteboarding circle, and I have the impression that a significant chunk of my challenge in getting a good whiteboard discussion going is due to the fact that the presenting group is up front and all the other students (and I) are facing them rather than the whole class facing each other.  The obvious solution is to try pods (clusters of desks or tables, one per lab group) like we've been using in this workshop.  However, whenever I've used those in the past it has seemed to make it much, much harder for my students to focus on the educational learning experiences of my course rather than socializing off-topic with their group-mates.

I guess it comes down to the core question of where the students should be focusing.  Deep seated in my teaching soul is, I think, a fundamental insecurity that students (especially the ninth graders who make up the vast majority of my students) will stay on task and engaged if their focus is not environmentally directed to the front of the room (where I usually stand to give directions and where a powerpoint is usually projected, not often with notes, but with reinforcing guidance for key discussion questions or the current activity).  The part of me that wants my students to take control of their learning is all for being a facilitator / coach of their pod-centered learning experiences.  That part of me hopes that if the students are in control of the learning activities, they'll find them engaging enough to stay on-task without environmental reinforcement.  The control-freak part of me that wants to make sure students are making the most of their learning time in my room is having trouble letting go of her hatred of the pods.  

I suppose the hard question is:  If my students are on-task when engaged in front-of-the-room focused learning activities that don't actually give them deep conceptual understanding or independent science meaning-making skills, is that better than them being sometimes off-task while working on more self-directed, meaningful learning activities?  The rational part of my brain says I should give pods a chance, but the resistant part of me is pretty out of my comfort zone, emotionally nervous, and deeply rooted.  That part of me wants to keep my seating as-is and just figure out a way to make a whole class discussion circle from it.

If you're a pod person, I welcome  tips, tricks, advice, and reassurance about that approach to seating! 

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