Two Birds, One Stone: Critical Thinking and Collaboration Activity

Is my blog post title impolitically correct?  I reside in Redneck, Alberta where killing birds is pretty common-place.  You’ll live (Even if the birds don’t!)

I went “old school” today, which is odd for me, as anyone who knows me knows.  I used to push tech; now I’m open to students preferences. But today I forced pen to paper in order to make my point about the need for critical thinking and collaboration in our “learning community.”

I’ve taken to calling my ELA 10 class a community.  The students laugh at me but are slowly beginning to mimic me, even if it’s facetious for now.  I want students to believe that a community of learners will benefit them so much more than a class of students.  My goal for the class from the start of the term has been to build their critical thinking skills (see here), and now I want them to begin on collaboration as a critical thinking strategy.

My lesson today was designed around having students believe that collaborating together can actually benefit them by aiding them in their critical thinking.  For a bit more background into the current assignment, see this post and the end of this post.  Essentially, I want to move away from “essay” writing and replace it with more authentic “proposal” writing.  There are some major similarities, but there are also many significant differences. In order to do this, I am using a real life proposal straight from the desk of President Obama a mere 3 months ago.  The proposal deals with reducing gun violence in order to keep kids and communities safer.  The stated context of the proposal was the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting this past December.  My students watched a powerful 15 minute news video produced by ABC to gain the needed context.  We discussed the tragic event, vented our outrage, and they brainstormed a list of 6 proposals individuals or groups might make in light of this event.

Today’s lesson introduced them to the proposal from Obama.  All we focused on for 80 minutes was the ~250 word introduction that contained a fantastic title, 3 paragraphs, a numbered list (the ideas), and a clear statement of purpose (the thesis).  I read the intro to them complete with appropriate emphasis and emotion (stopping to add some humour to the class with a photo to “explain” the 2nd Amendment of the American Constitution (We are Canadian, so it’s not common knowledge):

Bear Arms

Then the real learning began.  I slowly and carefully explained (and reexplained then drew a picture to visualize the explanation) what I wanted students to do:

  • Take out 2 blank, lined sheets of paper (What if I use a notebook?  Then tear one out and leave the other in.  Can I use my iPad?  No, this needs to be paper today. Can it have other stuff on it?  No, blank sheets, please.)
  • Today you will be completing a critical thinking activity and should come to understand that asking questions is encouraged rather than criticized.  Hence, I don’t mind your questions at all . . . but they should be thoughtful questions!
  • When I tell you to, you will skim back through the introduction.  As you skim through, think of two questions you would want to ask The President if he was here right now.  Keep in mind these questions should make you sound smart and thoughtful rather than, you know . . . (. . . like we actually are Mr. Groff?  No, no.  You are all smart and thoughtful and you’ll prove it today.)
  • You will write down your two questions on both sheets of paper, at the top, nicely, not all huge and stupid like, like the grade 11’s insist on constantly doing.  (laugh laugh laugh) [but they all got it right].
  • Again, once you have your two questions, you’ll put them both on both sheets of paper. (So both my questions go on both sheets?  Or question one on one sheet and question two on the other?  Both on both.)
  • Here, let me show you.

2 paper example

  • Okay.  Do that now.  [It took a while.  I warned them to keep their work covered and private because if their neighbour has the same questions as them their lives will soon get very difficult.  Students struggled to think critically and come up with two thoughtful/insightful questions to ask The President.  BUT they refused help.  They understood the task and insisted that I do NOT offer them a suggestion.  [Of course, I wandered the room looking over shoulders.] After most had their questions down, on both sheets, I let them get a drink and relax while the others finished.]
  • Now, listen carefully.  When I say “go” I want you to pass ONE of your sheets to the person on your left. [They are in a semi-circle, all community-like.] (Which way is left? That way [picture me pointing left].  Which sheet?  I don’t care, choose one.  Maybe the neatest one. If you have one in your notebook, pass it and keep the loose page.  But then people will look through my notebook.  I want to pass the other one. No you don’t.  Trust me.  And they won’t have time to look through your notebook.  Do I need to put my name on it?  No, you don’t.  What?  Just trust me.
  • When I say “go” I want you to pass one sheet to the left, the neatest, or the one in your notebook.  Left.  That way. [picture me pointing left . . . again.]
  • Then, read the two questions on the page you get.  So Jimmy is going to get up and take his paper across the gap in our circle (I have to get up?  Fine, I’ll take your sheet over) and he’ll get a sheet from Sarah.  Jimmy is going to read Sarah’s two questions.  Then he’s going to reread his own two questions–the ones on the extra sheet of paper he kept (Oh, that’s why we wrote it out twice.  Yes.  Wow! You really thought of everything.  Yes. Yes, I did.)  Then he’s going to determine whether Sarah’s questions are different than his, or the same.  If they are different, he’s going to write his two questions out on Sarah’s paper.  He’s. Going. To. Write. HIS. Questions. On. HER. Paper.  IF, they are different.  (What if they are the same?  [Ignore and continue]) If Sarah has one, or both questions the same as Jimmy’s then Jimmy gets to think up one or two more questions to add to Sarah’s sheet. (Oh, no.  It took me forever to think up the first two.  This is why I told you not to copy your neighbour’s questions.  I didn’t.  Then likely you’ll be okay.)  When you’re done, do nothing.  Sit back and relax.
  • Ready? (Yes) Any more questions? (No)  Gopher! [students begin to pass papers until some laugh and chide their friends because I didn’t actually say “Go.”  [They get their papers back] Goal! [same] Goat! [groans and no movement] Go!!! [And they do.]
  • [Sit back and watch the work happen.  Critical thinking and collaboration everywhere.  First they thought critically about the introduction of the proposal, getting to know it better without realizing it. [Not the real point at all.  I couldn’t care less how well they understand this text–but understanding will happen regardless]  Then, they are considering whether or not their neighbour’s questions are the same as theirs. (Mr. Groff, I think this question is the same, but one of the words is different.  Let’s take a look, but I bet you’ll be writing a new question.  Oh, nope, okay.  The word that is different actually changes the meaning of the question.  “Reduce” and “Eliminate” are not the same.) [A couple more close calls happen but in every circumstance the questions are slightly different in their meaning.  Stop the class and mention that they are now understanding the importance of word choices.  It is critical that you use the best word to get your message across accurately.  [unintended learning] Write a draft, then go back and rethink your word choices.  You often won’t be there to explain that you meant one thing but mistakenly wrote another.]
  • Now, pass the paper you received to the left again.  Keep yours, but pass the one that isn’t yours.  (Why don’t you just say “get ours back again?”  Because Rick, you need to learn your left from your right.  You don’t want yours back. [this one didn’t really happen, thank goodness!]
  • Repeat what you just did.  Read the four questions on the page you just got, the last two should be the same two you just read but not necessarily if your neighbour had to write a new question.  If any of the questions are the same as yours, you need to write a new question.  If all four are different from your two, add your two to the list to make six questions.
  • Repeat.
  • Repeat
  • [Before the end of class, have students collect their original paper, which now has 10 or more questions on it.  They will know which is theirs because the first two questions on it will be the two questions they have on the other sheet in front of them.]
  • So, how many of you had to write new questions at some point. [Very few hands]  Isn’t it interesting how you struggled to come up with two questions from a 250 word introduction, yet most of you came up with different questions?  Were any of the questions terrible? [No, they weren’t.  They were all acceptable questions, many were thoughtful, and a few were insightful.]  Sharing your work with others, and getting to see theirs, can truly help you see a text or a situation from a different perspective.
  • As you walk out the door today, you’re going to throw one of your sheets in the recycling bin.  I don’t care which one.  That choice is yours. [Stand by door and recycling bin and watch students throw out the sheet with only two questions on it.  Nod in agreement and save their rationale for tomorrow’s class.]









How Can We Make Learning Relevant?

I don’t know about you, but I get somewhat upset when I feel my time is being wasted.  Sometimes that’s waiting in traffic, listening to someone retell the same story they’ve told numerous times before, sitting in the doctor’s office because they are running behind even though I’ve made an appointment, or zoning out at a staff meeting or PD session that doesn’t seem relevant to me at all.  Can you imagine how students must feel showing up to school 6 hours a day, 5 days a week if they feel what you’re teaching them is a waste of time?

The Problem

I gave my ELA 10 class a questionnaire to fill out at the beginning of the term this year and one of the questions I asked related to how important they believe English Language Arts is to their lives.  I wasn’t surprised to find that most students do not find ELA overly relevant.  They were surprised to learn that a full year English course is the only mandatory course for nearly all University students regardless of their program.  I am an English major and a PE minor; I didn’t take a single math, science, or history class.  But those majors had to take a 6-credit English course.  English is important to everyday life.  I’m sure every teacher of every subject area would argue their subject is important to life.  And I get it.  I do.  But as a teenager, I didn’t.  And this is the problem.  As adults we undertand that the subjects we teach are important, yet most students don’t get it.  Sure, there’s some who understand they need certain courses to graduate, or particular classes to get into the post secondary programs they want, but that’s different, isn’t it?

I’m going to take a moment and argue the other side of this issue.  Readers of my blog have been hearing about how much I hate math.  My students know it, too.  It’s not that I don’t think math is important; I just find it hard.  More to the point, I don’t find it important to my everyday life.  That’s not to say that if math never existed that my life wouldn’t suck.  Because my life would suck.  Math impacts my life in huge ways; however, it will positively impact my life whether I can do math or not.  Others can.  So others can use math to make my life easier.  I don’t actually use math beyond a basic elementary level on a day-to-day basis (I’m a bit ashamed to say that I actually counted on 4 fingers today to confirm that 18 + 4 = 22.).  I get by, yet I had to take math all through high school.  Even though I didn’t see the relevance.  Even though I still don’t see the relevance.  I can make similar arguments for science and social studies.  I’m guessing many of you could make the argument for English Language Arts. I feel like going off on a tangent here and exploring just how important it could actually be to learn all the content knowledge of these high school subjects when I don’t use it and don’t remember it . . . but I won’t.

The Point

The point I want to make with this post is that many students don’t, rightfully so or not, find school relevant to their lives.  I’ve come to terms with the fact that many of my students don’t like ELA in the same way I don’t like other subjects.  I’m fine with that.  What I’m not fine with, are students who walk out of my class not seeing the relevance of what we did.  Whether we are studying poetry, Shakespeare, novel, visual, non-fiction, etc. I want my students to take something relevant away from that text.  Briefly, I have a few reasons for this.

  1. If students see the relevance in a text, they will be more willing to study that text.
  2. If students see the relevance, they will be more open to texts in their everyday lives.
  3. If students see the relevance, they will be more engaged.
  4. If students believe school is relevant, they will be more open to learning.

Teaching kids to appreciate Shakespeare is hard.  I didn’t care for Shakespeare when I was in high school.  I thought the plots were full of illogical holes. (If only Juliet had run off with Romeo–He got away, why couldn’t they both?)  It wasn’t until the years off between high school and university that I came to appreciate the art of Shakespeare’s stories.  I hope some of my experience rubs off on students as I try to explain this at the start of Shakespeare; however, I’m not naive enough to believe all students walk away appreciating Shakespeare.  What I will proudly say is that the vast majority of my students walked away from Shakespeare this year realizing that his plays can speak to them on a very personal level.

The Possibility

Instead of approaching Shakespeare with the purpose of appreciating Shakespeare, this year my students were looking to him to provide possible answers to meaningful questions that were relevant to their lives.  My 20’s, for example were seeking an answer to the question, “Can I know if I, or someone I know, is in love?”  This was the question on the board when my students walked in from summer vacation.  Right from day one, my 20’s were talking about a topic that related to their lives.  And boy oh boy did they talk.  We began with “thought journals” where they recorded their initial thoughts about the question.  Throughout the unit, we came back to the thought journals and revised opinions based on the texts we studied.  Questions were asked, perspectives were explored, in some cases opinions were changed.  We didn’t jump right into Shakespeare.  Shakespeare was NOT the unit focus.  This transcendent question was the focus.  It provided the possibility of engaging in textual analysis, conversation, and learning.  We discussed the differences and similarities between LUST, LOVE, and CRUSH, defining the terms, comparing how individuals act, look, speak, their motives, their goals, etc.  We explored self-love, friendship, patriotism, and romance.  We looked at visuals, read a short story, watched Troy, read Troilus and Cressida (Shakespeare), and watched The Simpson’s.  In the end, some students walked away saying that they believed they did in fact have enough information to determine if they, or someone they knew were in love.  Some said they would know if they were in love, but could never be certain of someone else.  Some said there is no sure way to know at all.  One walked away with a beautifully heartbreaking paper explaining why she believed love doesn’t exist in our world.  It wasn’t about agreeing.  It wasn’t about “the correct answer.”  It wasn’t about Shakespeare or visuals or any particular text.  It was about them.  It was about their lives.  It was about making English class relevant to their lives.

I believe the possibility exists in every subject area, at every grade level, for every “unit,” for every teacher to engage their students every day in learning through the use of Transcendent Questions.  By getting to know your students on a more personal level, it’s possible to tailor-make questions that will suit the needs of the class or majority of the students.  One of my questions later on in the term for my ELA 30 class was purposefully created to have students think about how they were treating one another.  Without prompting, after some study and reflection, their discussion did make it’s way around to the class dynamic.  It was definitely a feel-good moment for me.

The PLN Opportunity

A Twitter conversation I had today with @alicekeeler @jankenb2 @ACEedu and @CraigRusbult led to the notion that more teachers need to start making learning relevant to the lives of students.  Transcendent Questions were mentioned.  We wondered how to create a repository of questions for teachers to take from and add to.  We thought a Google Spreadsheet would be the way to go.  I’ve created one HERE.

***This is the first Google Spreadsheet I’ve ever created.  I tried to set it up as best I could; however, I doubt it’s “properly done.”  Please, if you have any experience with this, fix it up and get it working properly.  I tried to keep it so the filtering would work well to sort both grade level and subject area.  Make suggestions to fix it, or just fix it–I think I left it wide open for editing.  The suggestions I’ve included are ones that I’ve designed to work with grade 10-12 (div 4) ELA.

The Google Spreadsheet of Transcendent Questions to Make Learning Relevant