Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Lesson reflection: determining relevant vs. best evidence

Today the CollabLab welcomes Alexa Rodheim, an English teacher at Elk Grove HS. She can be reached @AlexaRodheim

One of the biggest challenges English teachers face is how to help students improve their ability to analyze evidence in argumentative writing. We are constantly asking them to answer the questions “So what?” and “Why is this important?” rather than simply summarize the examples or data they have chosen to support their arguments. With this in mind, what I have begun to realize is that many students, especially freshmen, struggle with this skill— not because they lack the ability to explain or “dig deeper,” but because they often choose only relevant (and sometimes even irrelevant) evidence rather than the best evidence. In other words, we can only ask students to write strong analysis if we first ask them and show them how to incorporate strong evidence.

Sixth period Peer Observation Group members visited my double-period WOC/prep reading classes in October to observe a lesson in which I attempted to do just this. Prior to the lesson, my students and I discussed the difference between relevant evidence and best evidence, and I modeled examples from a non-fiction article that presented two sides of current, controversial issues in Upfront magazine. Next, I had my students rotate through stations in which they skimmed additional articles from the magazine, looked at the pictures and captions, and ultimately chose one based on interest. They then independently read and annotated their articles and derived two main ideas (arguments).  For each main idea, they chose three pieces of supporting evidence from the article and completed a graphic organizer.

For the observed lesson students worked in small groups with peers who had chosen the same articles. Their objectives were to compare the three pieces of evidence they had each chosen for each main idea and compile their “top three” pieces of best evidence.  I asked them to record these choices, along with explanations for each, in a new graphic organizer. I also made the last minute decision to have students record their conversations on Notability using the audio note feature. I had been inspired by a lesson I observed in Kim Miklusak’s classroom a few weeks prior. Each group was required to send their recordings along with their completed organizers to me at the end. From there, they would be asked to evaluate both main ideas along with their corresponding best evidence and choose an argument for which they would independently write a MEL-Con paragraph.

From my perspective, one strategy that worked well was allowing student choice with the articles; it led to engagement in subsequent parts of the lesson. I also felt that the scaffolding for the lesson was appropriate: modeling, guided practice, independent work, group work, and back to independent work with built-in checkpoints with the whole group along the way. For example, Kim Miklusak and Linda Ashida both commented on the effectiveness of my pausing the lesson to remind students of prior knowledge and activities to prompt them for their next steps. Linda also noted that there was an effective blend of tech and non-tech, which allowed students to simultaneously view and synthesize pieces of information with ease. Students, despite their varying learning and behavior profiles, also had mostly positive interactions throughout the activity. Katie Owen noted that most groups she observed were respectful to one another, despite the sensitive topics in some of these articles, and that they made sure to move through the steps together.

One challenge I experienced with this lesson was the misconception of some students that the activity required them to debate sides of the argument rather than best evidence. Even with the clear expectations I set at the beginning of the lesson, some students persisted with these discussions, which steered them away from the true purpose. By the end, through redirection from me and even prompting from their peers, most were able to get on track. Another challenge during this lesson was how to go about using the audio note recordings. Both Rachel Barry and Mark Heintz inquired about how I would use the recordings, and I realized I didn’t have a solid plan. Going into the lesson, I thought of it as a classroom management tool for keeping students on-task and accountable; on the other hand, the recordings had potential to inspire students for their analysis in their paragraphs. For this lesson, it became a bit of a wash, but for future lessons I plan to experiment with more effective uses for this feature and to seek ideas from colleagues.

Overall, I appreciated the opportunity to invite my peers into my classroom and receive valuable feedback. I am excited to continue finding new ways to help students improve argumentative writing.

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