Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Dittos, Wars, and Encoding

About a decade ago, I had a colleague find a “ditto” machine that had been lost in a box in a closet for forever. It turned out, that while we had strict copy limits at my school -- there were no limits on the Ditto machine (until we ran out of ink -- can you even still buy that stuff?). So we went ditto-crazy and made dittos of everything after we used up our copies for the month. (Man, those dittos smelled good! :)

Sometimes, technology changes. While I might still use a ditto machine after I ran out of copies, I might also now project more on my projector, I might now email handouts to students, I might use write-and-wipes. There are a lot more options than dittos-and-overhead-projectors.

Confession time:
During my first year as a teacher I taught “Florida Challenges and Choices” to 8th graders. My entire curriculum was six squares on a single sheet of paper with a different topic each six-weeks grading period -- like “Florida Geography” and “Finance Park” and “Wars and Conflicts” and no textbook or notebook of resources. It was catch-as-catch-can. During that last unit, “Florida in Wars and Conflicts” my veteran colleague gave me a 22-page typed packet with outlined  notes on every conflict Florida had ever been involved in-- from the Spanish assault on Fort Caroline (1565) to Florida’s role in the Persian Gulf War (1991).

The students literally were expected to sit quietly and copy the 22-page packet of notes -- for weeks.

And I, being a new teacher, not knowing any better, assigned it to my students. And then struggled with the classroom management and the ensuing student revolt. In April and May!!

And then gave them an open-note test. Which they bombed, of course.

If you know any of those students -- please apologize for me. I’m pretty sure those kids didn’t learn ANYTHING about Florida Wars and Conflicts. Or anything!

So, with full disclosure of my own prior note-copying practices I want you to look deeply at your own.

There is a time and a place for students copying down information. I get that. But as professionals, we need to really examine our practices of copying.

Why do we have students copy?

If it is for students to get information, we might think about using the copy machine. Or the ditto machine (does anyone still have one? :) Or the books. Or let kids take photos with their phones.

If it is for students to interact with information, we might think about having students make notes instead of taking notes.

Research shows that copying notes does not support retention of lecture content. So why do we do it?

Here’s a great quote from “Exemplary Instruction in the Middle Grades”, by Diane Lapp and Barbara Moss (2012), reading coaches and teacher-educators at San Diego State University -- stay with me, high school folks. This can apply to your kids, too! They cite teachers in a PLC at an “urban neighborhood school”.

Mr. Rappaport, a social studies teacher, tells his colleagues that he cannot understand why his students perform so poorly on the section quizzes and unit tests. He explains that he has developed Powerpoint presentations for each chapter that include many visuals and notes, which he has his students carefully copy down. He reveals to his colleagues, “And for my English language learners who can’t read the textbook and for those students who won’t read the textbook, lecturing and note taking seem to be the only way that the students will get the material. Most of my students can’t take notes on their own. They can’t write fast enough, and some of them have poor listening skills. Copying down the notes should help the students remember better than just reading or hearing the material. I like to have them copy the notes because it keeps them busy and on task during the period. Even so, they are still doing poorly on the tests.

With exasperation in her voice, Mrs. Grim, the science teacher, said, “I have the same problem, except that instead of having my students copy the powerpoint slides, I prepare graphic organizers, which the students follow as I lecture and we fill in together. If they study the graphic organizer, the students should do well on the quizzes -- but they don’t. (p. 292-293)

Does any of that sound familiar? It sure does to me! I swear, I spent hours every Sunday afternoon crafting clear, easy to read powerpoints with lots of historical art and engaging visuals. And still, my kids didn’t do so hot on my tests and quizzes.

According to Lapp and Moss, notetaking has two main purposes: recording information and promoting reflection. We record information like grocery lists and phone numbers every day. We get that.

Reflection, called encoding, is when students use notes for more sophisticated purposes, like summarizing, interpreting, making connections, etc. “When students actively generate relationships among parts of information and between this new information and their prior knowledge, comprehension is improved. When students re-process information in some way, whether through summary writing or self-questioning, long-term memory is improved and material is better recalled. ... The more the information learning process involves understanding and transforming operations, the greater the intensity and effectiveness of the learning process.

The keys are in the making of notes, not the taking of notes. What do I mean?

According to Robert Marzano, kids need to interact with information. They’re not sponges anymore. They’re potters who need to squoosh and smoosh and squish and manipulate the content until it fits the way THEIR brains want to store it. Encoding...

Research says that “The mere fact of copying information does not ensure that students will remember or truly understand the information provided. Research has found that the act of copying does not aid recall. For true learning to occur, students need opportunities to engage in tasks that go beyond copying.

SO, how do we do that? How do we help kids encode content? How do we get it to stick in their brains?

They’ve got to process it. First, they shouldn’t copy too much -- certainly not 22 pages! Let’s use the copying piece sparingly. Here are some ideas on processing.
  • Kids can encode content when they discuss it. They need to do the discussing, not us-we-the-teachers discussing it for them. Try a turn-and-talk or sentence starters.
  • Kids can encode content when they summarize it. Kids doing the summarizing, not us-the-teachers summarizing for them.
  • Kids can encode content when they write claims and find evidence from their notes or readings. Again, they have to write the claims and find the evidence. We can’t do it for them.
  • Kids can encode when they argue about something in their notes or readings. We can’t argue it for them.
  • Kids can encode when they make connections to other information. Again, they have to make the connections for themselves. We can’t do it for them. d
  • Kids can encode when they re-work or interpret the content into their own visual, graphic organizer, foldable, or whatever. We can’t rework it for them.
So what if my kids are lousy discussers, summarizers, claim writers, arguers, connectors, or interpreters?

I use gradual release to teach the skill. First, I show them how to summarize. Then, we summarize all together.  Next, they practice summarizing in groups. Finally, they practice summarizing independently.

Let’s find better ways to use notes -- and let’s not be a ditto machine but be judicious with copying of notes. Let’s find ways for our students to encode our content so they really get it.

How do you have your kids encode content? Any ways you can increase your encoding and use your copying more judiciously?

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