Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Learning from Each Other: Student Perspectives

I often wonder what students learn from each other when assigned to work in groups. They experience success (when I’ve created the conditions!) completing tasks and making their thinking visible. But I haven't asked them how much they learn from their partners. how does working in groups amplify or diminish learning? Especially in situations that are more student driven, where the students generate their group’s direction. I’ve been curious what they learned in groups that they weren’t able to on their own, so I experimented with a “focused free write” exit card/survey. 

A few class sessions ago, I wanted students to debrief their experience drafting an essay We were in the middle of an informative essay project about Ella de Castro-Baron’s Itchy Brown Girl, a mixed-genre memoir written in the form of a curriculum vitae. The project called for students to select a pop song that clarifies, extends, or otherwise illuminates the theme of one of the sections of her memoir.

I asked students to bring to class the memoir, a “sloppy copy” (early draft) of their composition, and an annotated copy of the  lyrics of the their selected song. Before assigning groups, I set aside a few moments for students to review their notes, directing them to get ready to orally walk through their thinking and drafting process with other students.

“What do you mean? Walk through our process?” I could practically hear students’ eyebrows furrowing and faces grimacing in confusion. 

I tried to clarify, asking them to jot down notes about the steps they took to get as far as they did with their projects. How did they select a theme? How did they pick a song? How did they go about analyzing the song? What did they do to figure out how the connection between the memoir and the song was important enough to share with a reading audience? Basically, rehash what it took to think through your writing project. 

Once students felt more secure with the questions, they jotted down their notes. I divided the class into groups of four, and gave another relatively open set of directions: “You now have a total of 20 minutes for everyone in your group to  teach/share their writing process to your group. Walk them through what you did in order to get to your “sloppy copy” draft”.

I also told them that they should ask questions of each other as this was their chance to learn from each other about how they solve writing problems. Have a real conversation. The only other instruction was that they should do their best to divvy up the time equally  among all four members of the group, and that I’d leave timing up to them. 

The first five minutes was torturous to watch  Discussion was one-sided, halting, slow to start. Students were haltingly reading their jotted notes to each other.  I strained not to jump in,worried that
they didn’t care for the assignment or that my directions were (once again) inadequate.

But as the sixth and seventh minute eventually rolled around, discussion got more lively. There was real conversation - people speaking, asking questions, and challenging each other. 

I exhaled, relieved I hadn’t tried to hijack and ultimately control any of the groups. Hooray!

At the twenty minute mark, I asked students to finish up their conversation, but they lobbied for more time. I picked up from body language and tone,  as well as the words i could make out over the noise, that, for the most part folks were on task. So I let the groups continue sharing for ten more minutes.

I wanted to know what exactly they learned from each other, so I wrote exit ticket/survey  prompt on the board: “What specific lessons, concepts, or facts did you learn from your group? Did anything anyone say help you learn or relearn something that would help you with this writing project”?  

I reminded them that there would be no way they could be wrong - they were simply reporting their experiences. And I wasn’t looking to chastise anyone for not contributing. I just wanted to know what they got from each other. Here’s a sampling of excerpts from their responses (I’ve changed the names to preserve anonymity).

Some students got a deeper understanding of concepts we’ve been unpacking all semester:
  • I re-learned about social construction when Teodoro explained why he chose the song “Try”.
  • I  like how Mae talked about her song and described personification, how the author used a bird to represent . . . the main character.  
  • Rey helped reinforce the idea of cause and effect. He used the scene where Ella yells at her husband because of her eczema. Then Rey used  his song to explain how his friends are untrue, so that causes him to leave them.

Students helped each other reinforce earlier lessons - anchoring concepts more deeply into each other's’ schema. And I’m sure that hearing these concepts from each other hit students in a different register than reviewing notes or hearing me lecture would.

Students also got a better understanding of the memoir:

  • Hearing Archie share Drake’s Song “Now and Forever” and  comparing it to Ella’s pain . . . helped me visualize and understand that part of the book with more feeling.
  • Because of my partners, I understood several sections of the book more deeply,specifically the scene where the narrator got diagnosed with her illness. My partner explained to my group that this section is about how Ella is in the brink of losing it. Another partner elaborated on what Ella experienced during the conversation with her husband’s family.
  • Lily gave me a better idea about the variety of themes [in] Itchy Brown Girl. When Sheila presented her song, she helped bring back scenes into my head that I totally forgot. Sheila also came up with theme that I totally forgot about.  

Even though I’m loathe to admit it, students listen to each other better than they listen to me. It’s as if they have  different set of ears when I discuss material, be it in a lecture or even one-on-one. And that’s not even accounting for  how many scenes I didn’t discuss in class. I’m sure that the scenes I chose to discuss interested me.  but I bet what I found meaningful is completely different than what students believed was remarkable - there are many significant social distances between my students and me, so it’s important to create a space where they can discuss what they think is meaningful. My discussions should serve as a model for how to have a conversation about a text,  a “mentor text” for close reading, the the definitive choice for the scene everyone should discuss.

Many students shared discoveries they made about sharing their thinking process:
  • Working with my partners . . . made  me realize that there is more than one song related to the same theme. It was funny because we . . . were working on the same sections. In general we have the same idea [about the book], but we chose different songs.
  • What I learned from being in this group was that it may feel kind of weird but sharing opinions of what we tried to do with our songs and  the book helped me find some quotes that connected. Being in groups can give you a good way to learn what is to be done for the later part of writing and talking to the class. Helping and talking with each other can make a huge difference when trying to find new ideas.
  • Working with a group really helped with my presentation skills and  how to phrase what I plan on writing because  . . .  often the connection between my brain and my mouth gets tangled up.
  • Working with Joanna helped me realized that I need to do more analysis on my paper. All I did was pick a song and make a general connection to a chapter of Itchy Brown Girl. I also relearned from her that any song is viable if I can make some connection.

These responses were the most surprising and pleasing to read. These answers show that students need a chance to hear and discuss their thinking with each other. Doing so demonstrate the social construction of meaning, and helps students (myself included) develop metacognitive skills, the habit of introspection that greatly increases the quality and quantity of thinking. And those kinds of skills are best learned through practice - procedural knowledge that can be applied to all sorts of thinking scenarios, not just English.

The upshot? I like reading how shared reflections empower students. I have permission to assign more group work - as long as it’s purposeful and  oriented, with some sort of “product” to be shared at the end. In this case, the product was a reflective piece about their process. And I need to lean into the discomfort of balancing open-ended discussion questions with the more directive types of questions so students can experience the productive confusion of having to think on their feet while having just enough scaffolding - training wheels - to preclude unduly discomfiting them.   

And I'm definitely going to keep asking students reflect on their thinking.