Great teachers easily do this

Ran into a blog by Justin Tarte on some of the qualities of a good teacher. I didn’t really quibble with much of what he had to say, although sometimes these kinds of lists make me uncomfortable. I have met a lot of incredible educators, and they all brought their very unique selves to the profession. However, most of the points were general enough to work.

There was one that got my attention, however. It is not that I disagree with the idea, but I stumbled when I got the word, easily.

Easily. Hmmmm…. Okay, pushing thinking, yes. Asking questions and getting students thinking more deeply, yes. Getting a room talking, sure. Getting a room discussing in a skilled manner, and then assessing that skill, not that easy. This is one area that I have struggled with over the years. It is not as simple as it might seem. Some students are reticent. Some talk too much. Some students can be cruel. The age of the group can play a role, for sure. It takes community-building to enable students to be vulnerable and real. As I have written before, not all groups are created equally. Some groups are more ready than others to have a conversation.

In English Language Arts in BC, we need to be able to assess this skill. Oral Language is supposed to comprise something like 20% of their mark. If we are assessing it, it must also be taught.  That part I have done, and I have no problem thinking of different ways to bring students to the concepts of good communication. The assessment is where I run into trouble.

Even when I do have a group that is respectful and will talk, I am often circulating, pushing thinking, sometimes dealing with a behaviour issue. How can I assess this regularly enough to have something valid to say on a report card?

I’d be very grateful if anyone has some assistance on this.

3 thoughts on “Great teachers easily do this

  1. Thought-provoking post.
    I teach second-language learners so the oral communication part has even more thorns to it as students might THINK well but language can be a barrier in expressing themselves clearly.
    The first step prior to assessing communication skills (in my case) is to pin down what good, effective, meaningful conversations look like. Obviously, in an ESL type of environment, that looks different from a regular class where everyone speaks the same mother tongue. It also varies depending on student age, as you pointed out.
    The next step is to keep anecdotal records of students using these skills in various learning cirumstances. As oral language skills are the hardest to develop (and as a second-language learner myself I can testify to that), I allow time and frame it as a continuum.
    Students also contribute to developing rubric or checklist-like assessment formats and they self-evaluate, too. Sometimes these reflections can give you a more authentic glimpse into students’ strengths and weaknesses, and might help you identify factors that prevent them from communicating well (i.e. shyness).
    Obviously, modeling good conversations and group communication is critical. Try asking your students to brainstorm on this question, “What would an effective group work look like/sound like? What can we expect this group to do/say?” Are there always the same “leaders” in these conversations? Can we switch these roles?
    I am not sure if this helps but I think “communication” is a broad toopic and it involves more than oral language – from social to thinking skills.

  2. Thanks, Cristina. I think it is the keeping of the anecdotal evidence that I find somewhat challenging. I have generated rubrics with students and everyone is clear about the expectations. The problem is finding the optimum time to do the assessment. I have tried doing the assessments myself, which means that I have to circulate and pay attention only to that behaviour. I find myself getting distracted and joining conversations to the extent that I dont’ get valid data. It is hard to ensure I have all 20 or 25 students covered enough times to give them a mark. I have tried student self-assessment. That was not bad; I just didn’t fit in enough assessed conversations. I have also considered asking the administrators or another English teacher on prep to come in and help – to free me up to push the conversation while they do the oral language assessment.

    I do think one of the key issues is that in a 5 month semester, I am trying to teach too many things. I always try to repeat to myself, “Go deep, not far”. In my Grade 10 class, which is what I am thinking the most about right now, I am teaching response to literature, compare/contrast, and memoir. I often find that I am squishing in the oral language. Ultimately, that is is the issue. You cannot teach something well that is being squished into the curriculum. Perhaps what I need to do is focus on one tiny skill. Hmmm. What would it be? Thanks for helping me think. Any other thoughts are also really appreciated!!

  3. Hi. I teach grade 6 in middle school and what I have done is develop a rubric with students and then we break into smaller groups: 5 or 6. The other students are working on written assignments that they have choice over and they are required to work quietly. The group meets and each person has a chance to open discussion with their point of view that they have prepared ahead of time. After one person opens discussion, others can comment or pass. Since their are several points of view with six students contributing, each student participates at least some of the time. I just keep track using a checklist looking for inferences, questions that extend thinking, synthesizing ideas in the group, listening and responding to each other. I have reduced the rubric to key ideas for this marking part and give a mark out of 5 but use tallies to help keep track until the end of discussion. That way I can contribute to the discussion and model the depth and questioning techniques aloud while still collecting individual data.
    I based this on the book Literature Circles by Faye Brownlee using her “Say Something” idea. I found that it can be extended across curriculum – with some modifications. Discussions on student-generated topics work well but I also use it to meet LO’s in core subjects – including Lit Circles!
    We do some whole group discussion that is more community building. We use a small clay pot with a candle – the tealight kind and talk about things like belonging, the nature of courage, bullying, etc.
    You are working with older kids but there might be some ideas that you could modify.

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