Literacy Lessons: Comprehension and Interaction

Every day, my practicum teacher begins his sixth-grade class with a warm up. This warm up has taken the form of a short written reflection or observation, but recently it has been in the form of a Class Weather Chart:

For five minutes at the start of each period, students study the daily weather report (projected onto screen from the teacher’s laptop) and fill out this chart with the corresponding information. It is a straightforward, easy, and somewhat mindless exercise, and in this way it makes a great warm up for the class. The best part about it, though, and why it is notable for this bloggestry, is that after the five minutes are up, my practicum teacher goes to the projector and fills the chart out with the help of the class. He turns off the weather report, sits down with the chart, and fills it out using exclusively the knowledge that they give him. It is like some sort of advanced modeling. He is demonstrating exactly how to perform the task, and at the same time showing his students that the skills they have are worthwhile and reliable. After seeing the effects this simple technique has on the class, I do not think I am overstating my praise of it. The teacher uses another form of modeling in this warm up exercise by answering honestly about what he knows about the weather. For example, one day a letter G appeared in front of wind speed on the weather report. Hands shot up, and everyone wanted to know what it meant. The teacher didn’t know, and he told them exactly that. Then he asked, “Where do you think we could go to find out about that?” Students suggested the dictionary, the internet, and to look if there was a key elsewhere on the weather report. So the teacher checked the internet and found the answer. G meant “gusts,” and the number that followed G meant that gusts could pick up to that speed throughout the day. The class had learned something together thanks in large part to the teachers modeling of asking the right questions and brainstorming the right places to look for the answers.

When it comes to experiment and assessment, I believe my practicum teacher really shines. During experiments, students are encouraged to collaborate and make discoveries together. One exercise in particular required that students worked together in order to fully realize the aspects and capabilities of air, but the instructions to do so were never expressly given. The experiment involved using giant syringes to trap and play with the volume and dimensions of air, and when two students combined their syringes with a provided rubber tube, they could observe that the air would travel from syringe to syringe, pushing and pulling the plungers as it went. Air could do more than move, it could do work, and this vital discovery of air would only be possible when students decided, on their own, to work together.

Assessments are a tricky thing, but my practicum teacher does them well. Assessments in his class take the form of four short-answer questions—three which are fairly straightforward and one extension question which goes into application and is more thought-provoking. In order to make sure that every student can at least hit the ground running when the assessment is handed out, the first question is rephrased and given to the class as warm up. Students are given five minutes to think about and answer the question, and then the class discusses the answer together, stress-free and openly. They are informed and fully aware ahead of time that the warm up question will be on the assessment, and they take this preparation time very seriously. I love this idea of giving students a head start and a fighting chance, so that they can learn on their terms how exactly to take a test, not merely what to point on one. It allows them deeper understanding of assessments and how they learn, and in that simple warm up I believe my practicum teacher accomplishes more for his students than any assessment could.