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Monday, April 2, 2012

Can you prepare kids for testing AND teach them to think?

A friend of mine was substituting in a classroom yesterday with students taking a practice NJASK test.  The students were writing in response to an article about changing Pluto’s status from a planet to a dwarf planet.   She was left speechless after reading the students' responses.  They wrote things that were totally off the topic, drew ridiculous conclusions, and most did not answer the question, etc.  She noticed that the students were using an acronym to help them with the mechanics of writing.  The mechanics did not seem to be the problem.  She was really shocked at the student’s inability to come up with reasonable content in their writing.

Community Reading Assignments
In discussing this with a colleague, it was mentioned that a neighboring school starts each week with an article that every student, teacher and administrator reads.   This seems like a pretty powerful practice to me, especially if teachers and students were using a critical thinking process that gave them a common vocabulary to discuss it.  What a great way to get kids reading, give adults connections, start conversations, develop critical thinking (and of course, raise those test scores)! 

SCANning Complex Situations

Having a set of common questions for all complex situations is a great way to get students in the habit of thinking and helping them develop content for their writing.   Who might have a point of view or opinion on the topic?  Who are the stakeholders?  What are some of the issues?  Which issues are most important?  What do you think should be done?  These higher order thinking questions are the basis for SCAN, the critical thinking strategy from TregoED.  (See the issues, Clarify the issues, Ask what’s important, and Now, what should be done?)  Getting kids reading informational text and SCANning is an excellent way to give kids practice for high stakes testing.  Giving them articles with relevance and of high interest is part of the equation.  Many of our students know how to write, they get the mechanics, but how do they learn “what to write?”  That takes some critical and creative thinking.

Technology Makes it Easy

How can teachers fit one more thing in the day?  Why not use social media and discussion platforms to deliver the articles and start the discussions?  Leveraging student enthusiasm for writing in social media platforms, complete with the ability to share and respond to others' writing is a great way to get students enthusiastically contributing.  The benefits are many – students are more engaged, writing for an audience of their peers is incentive for more careful writing, reading other students work gives them models to work from and it is great way to practice reading and writing short constructed responses

The SCAN Tool

Of course, using the SCAN tool at TregoED is the perfect way to get students practicing the steps of SCAN as the questions are built right into the discussion platform.  You just select a scenario (or attach an article), students pick a point of view and they enter the discussion with screen names and avatars.   Using a couple of SCAN sessions within your content area can give students a better understanding of the content area and familiarize them with the questions.    Each one of the steps progresses up the scale of higher order thinking and with student’s playing different roles they support their points of view with gusto!  SCAN has a library of lessons dealing with current events, social issues, history, and science.  These problem-based topics are perfect for getting students to look at other perspectives on hot issues while teaching them a critical thinking strategy. 

Collaborize Classroom
Collaborize Classroom also offers a discussion platform where it is easy to link and article and use the SCAN questions to start the conversation.  Bottom line, kids like to write in this kind of platform, share what they wrote and comment on each others' writing.  Practicing critical thinking with relevant informational text is a great way to get students prepared for those dreadful questions asked on high stakes testing without making them “practice taking the test!"  Technology can make it relatively painless!  A win-win!  

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