Sunday, March 18, 2007

More on Close Reading (Thanks, Dr. Crazy)

I think there is really something to this. I tried a few ideas from the English-teaching side of the fence in a Friday class, and could see some lights come on for several students. Further, as I see more detail from others who teach "close reading" in English classes, I see more commonality in the challenges we face.

In an article I wrote last week, I guessed that student difficulties with problem solving in Physics and literary analysis in English might be related. I did not explicitly ask for teaching advice from that side of the fence (after all, no one is probably reading this blog yet); instead, I sent an e-mail asking Dr. Crazy to post a followup to her February article, to explain how she teaches "close reading". Dr. Crazy's response provided lots of detail about how she teaches it, and others added additional details, include a lengthy followup blog by Scott?. A big thanks to all of you.

I mainly use "modeling" to teach problem solving, and have some observations about it (and what helps make it work) that I'll append below. The main point, I think, is that we have to convince students that the methods we teach them in class are actually ones that we use ourselves, not ones we are parroting out of the "instructor's manual". The ideas I picked up from Dr. Crazy are, IMHO, ways to convince students that they are also methods they already use ... albeit in a different context.

The ideas I singled out for Friday's experiment were "in your own words" and "three questions". Homework was due and there were questions about one particular problem where something we had dealt with in the past (a particular phrase) appeared in a new context. As soon as we got to that phrase in the problem, their words were the right ones because they looked at the phrase on its own. Scott's emphasis on "the words on the page" also came into play here. Somehow breaking the sentences into pieces, and asking about each piece, really helps them. (The long-dead skill of diagramming a sentence immediately comes to mind. Do they need my prompting because they don't know how to identify each of the clauses?) Then I asked them what questions are raised by the problem, what things we need to know to answer them, etc, and we went on to convert it from english to mathematics.

The "three questions" then became a theme for the rest of the class (which was working examples related to next week's homework). By the end of class, several students were much more engaged in that process than in the past. Like some of the other discussions suggest, I suspect that giving this technique a memorable name is one key to getting them to automate it for themselves. Time will tell, but I am looking forward to making this into a collaborative learning exercise at the next opportunity.

On modeling:
I think modeling is crucial, but the trick is getting them to adopt it. Like Scott, who wrote "I realized a while back that simply modeling a close reading (which for them often registers as some kind of witchcraft) wasn’t enough.", I know they think I have magic wand, or the entire solutions manual in my head. Even when I verbalize the steps I normally do in my head, they are still looking for shortcuts. They want a magic wand for every problem! [I suspect they have a lot of un-learning to do. We need to deal with the side effects of prep classes for HS competency exams, which treat everyone as if they were at the 10th percentile. ] Thus I tell my students about once a week that this is how I solve problems! One thing that has really worked for me is getting some 'graduates' to come back and talk about what they use at the next level. They listen to peers, which is probably why many of the collaborative learning methods work so well.

Note added October 2007:

Interesting article in IHE on more effective teaching of freshmen at Ball State. One of the approaches was entirely about teaching higher-level reading skills.

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