Sunday, March 11, 2012

Bending the Rules....Nonfiction Text Features

For the past couple of years, I've chosen to work at the Saturday tutorial program at my school.  My principal invited about 100 of our at-risk students to this program, which is geared toward FCAT Reading and Math test-taking strategies.  This year, I am the Reading teacher for two rotations of 40 4th graders.  (So much for small class size, huh?  We have more needy children than we do teachers able to work on Saturdays, so we try to make it work.) 

Here's a moment of honesty: sometimes (many times), we Saturday teachers yearn to be back under the covers, catching up on much-needed sleep.  We take a very deep breath before entering the building, and we hope for a jolt of motivation and patience.  Our Saturday students may not be the MOST behaviorally challenged people in the school, but they're not exactly wearing halos.  A small percentage of them are pleased to be there, they try to stay on-task, and they do participate and produce work.   Yes, there have been Saturdays on which I, with complete exhaustion, return home and climb right bad into bed.  

For the past several weeks I've followed the program's recommendations, and I've done FCAT-formatted worksheets. My intro segment has always been pretty solid - handful of visuals, some technology here & there, and some discussion (many seemed to be in a vegetative state during the I'm still in the getting-to-know-you phase, I'm trying to suss out if this is due to ELL, slow processing, or a pattern of apathy).  Well, the next segment has always involved the FCAT-formatted worksheets.  At that point, some kids entered a catatonic state, others began to chit-chat or start shenanigans with classmates, and a handful dramatically pretend to have a bathroom emergency.  I'd circulate the room, mustering all of the positivity that I could find within my frustrated self, and I'd encourage them to keep working through the mock test.  

Well, last week was a tough one, and I didn't want to dread going into Saturday tutorial.  I was determined to put a positive note on the end of the week.  Plus, I know that the kids are there for a reason - I know that their parents, regardless of their level of involvement, are really hoping it makes a difference in their academic progress.  I know that I am responsible for pulling off something and, in the words of Tim Gunn, "making it work." 

I tackled this past Saturday it in a completely different way.  I threw away the multiple choice worksheets and my too-high expectations.  I taught a lesson on non-fiction text features and started with a slideshow of the features that the 4th graders need to know.  Along with my slideshow, I taught this lesson with the help of a really terrific (free!) activity sheet that I found on teacherspayteachers (thank you to the author, ZMcCauley!).  And I finally made use of all of those non-fiction books that were left in my classroom's closet when the previous teacher had moved out.  To get more student buy-in, I told them that they were just doing "detective work" on the books; they didn't need to read the books cover-to-cover.  I could hear their sigh of relief.  The thought of being detectives seemed to really motivate them, and they got right to work. I circulated around the room and made sure to tell them that it was okay if they couldn't find every single text feature in their book. "That's the reality of books -- everybody's might be different," I explained.  One student raised his hand and said, I found a timeline about corn farming.  I know timeline isn't on the activity sheet, but I wanted to let you know I found one -- I know what it is!"  They were getting it!  At the beginning of our lesson, I had taken extra time to explain the difference between a table contents and an index (often confusing to them).  During the activity time, they were all able to identify both of those things and explain the difference between those two features.  They were even excited to use scissors and to help me collate and staple their new text feature booklet.  Finally, I had tapped into some motivation inside them.  Were they all perfectly angelic students on Saturday?  . But just like any other day I use my classroom management so--but most of them never are.  However, even the most difficult students ended up with a product of their learning and an ability to explain what they had learned in class. 

I drove home from Saturday tutorial realizing that something had finally worked.  The students found a way to be motivated, and in return, I had also.  I had proven that sometimes, although it's not popular in a testing state, the best thing to do is break the monotony of multiple choice.  The students broke through the boredom and actually got a real understanding of what text features are, what they look like, and what their purposes are in the books that we read.  Did I make a big point about not doing a multiple choice test review?  No, I didn't.  I was satisfied in knowing that my classes had experienced authentic teaching, authentic learning, and authentic assessment.