In October 2016, I participated in the workshop Study for Success and Learn to Get Better Grades, which was facilitated by learning skills specialist Terry Small, B. Ed., M.A., who has been offering presentations on the human brain for over 33 years. Terry’s belief is that "Anyone can learn how to learn easier, better, faster, and that learning to learn is the most important skill a person can acquire." He also believes that success is a skill that we can all learn.
At the time this workshop was offered, my son was in grade 6 and we were struggling to help him develop effective study skills and become more focused. I was also starting my path towards becoming a teacher, so I thought it was a great opportunity as a mother and a future educator to find out how learning skills can be improved.
One of the most interesting things I learned during the workshop was how closely connected physical activity and learning are. When the body moves the brain becomes more efficient and learning is accelerated. Pacing is a very good way to help our brains become more successful at developing thoughts and retaining information. With physical activity oxygen is pumped to all our organs, including the brain, which improves our thoughts and our thinking process. I have actually experienced this while helping my son study for a science exam. When I quizzed him to check for knowledge and understanding, he was more focused and answered more questions correctly while he was simultaneously bouncing a basketball than when he was sitting down. Now, does this mean students in a classroom have to be constantly bouncing balls to become successful learners? Not necessarily, but they could be allowed to take frequent brain breaks that involve movement within the classroom to increase brain oxygenation. Older students might also be allowed to walk up and down the hallway while reading or when trying to develop ideas for an assignment.
Another interesting thing I learned was that eating certain foods promotes more effective learning. Neuroscience shows that the consumption of walnuts and prunes, for example, improves the cognitive function. So when studying for an exam, eating a prune or a few walnuts would be a good snack to further contribute to our focus and learning ability.
Research has also proven that listening to music stimulates the brain in many ways, but in order for our thinking engine to reach and remain in the ideal alpha state the music we listen to has to have a specific rate of beats per minute. Baroque music between 55 to 70 beats per minute has just the perfect rate that takes and maintains the brain in that state of flow, which contributes to learning success.
Other learning strategies suggested during this workshop included:
Having good learning skills is crucial to succeed not only in school but in life. If brain science shows that we can all improve our learning skills to become more successful learners why not teach students and our own children these effective techniques to contribute to their academic success. Success in turn will lead to motivation and life-long learning.
Assessment is a crucial element in a teacher’s practice that can be used to gather key information about students’ literacy skills and needs. Assessment should be implemented initially to determine the baseline performance of a student and regularly to monitor their progress. Therefore, students’ assessment of literacy skills is critical to determine instructional needs and planning. Students come to the classroom with various levels of literacy skills and needs. When the teacher is knowledgeable about what her students are ready to learn or the challenges they face she is able to develop lessons that meet the needs of each individual student. Assessments not only serve as a guide for literacy instruction, but they can also be used to monitor student progress, to demonstrate the effectiveness of the strategies implemented and to identify potential areas for instructional improvement.
When connecting assessment and planning, however, it is important to remember that not every method of assessment will be appropriate for all skill levels, cultures or learning styles. Therefore, using a variety of assessment strategies to collect information on student performance will allow the teacher to make more effective instructional decisions. It is also important to choose an assessment strategy that is relevant and appropriate not only for the task assessed, but also for the student’s needs and skills. Students should have the option to demonstrate learning in ways that are consistent with their learning styles and various intelligences.
Rubrics and checklists provide students with a list of elements or requirements they must meet to complete assignments successfully. The criteria should be clearly detailed and in a language that students can easily understand. For struggling students, however, individual assessment conferences might be more beneficial as they give the teacher an opportunity to discuss directly with the student their progress, needs and future goals for improvement. Teacher-led conferences are an effective strategy to assess strengths, weaknesses and progress for students in general. When completed at the beginning of the year, this assessment tool provides crucial diagnostic information that assists the teacher in making decisions about specific learning strategies based on a student’s baseline performance. A child’s baseline performance and reading level can then be used to select appropriate level content that is difficult enough to challenge the learner, but not so difficult that would result in frustration and discouragement. During these diagnostic conferences the teacher can also use student running records. This very useful tool allows the teacher to determine what a child knows and understands about the reading process as well as the strategies and cueing systems the child is using, giving the teacher a starting point to make instructional decisions.
Portfolios offer an effective way to assess student learning as both teachers and students are able to determine growth in specific areas by collecting and selecting work for the portfolio and reflecting on the selected samples of work. Portfolios can be used as an initial assessment tool or on an ongoing basis to evaluate progress or as a final assessment. Portfolios can include a number of pieces of work such as a cover that allows students to express their creativity, reflections on their work, learning goals and samples of students’ work. A key element of portfolios is the conference which includes the participation of not only the teacher and the student, but also the parents.
Student self-assessment is another effective method to determine a student’s learning and progress. In this case, students reflect on their own learning process and the strategies used and their prior knowledge. Students also evaluate the process they have followed to learn and the quality of the resulting product and they establish their own personal learning goals. Student self-assessment can be implemented in a number of ways including journal reflections at specific times of the year, lesson reflections after a specific lesson or unit has been completed or as project self-evaluations. Self-evaluations are an effective assessment tool because students are actively involved in reflecting on their progress, weaknesses and strengths, making them more likely to engage in their future learning and work towards achieving the goals they have set for themselves.
When planning for instruction, collecting information on student performance through various assessment methods that evaluate learning for different intelligences, learning styles, cultures, and skill levels will provide the teacher with a more comprehensive picture of her students’ skills, needs, interests and performance. While initial assessments provide information about the baseline performance of a classroom, which is necessary to make initial instructional decisions, ongoing assessments may also reveal that the teacher’s instructional plan and assessment criteria requires adjustment to meet students’ weaknesses and strengths as the year progresses. Therefore, it is important to understand that the connection between assessment and instruction is dynamic and requires constant review if the teacher intends to plan lessons that help all her students achieve their learning outcomes and are appropriate to their needs and various skill levels.
I have always found that poetry is a genre within Language Arts that poses significant challenges when it comes to engaging students. Analyzing a poem, finding the meaning behind the words, and determining the subject are some of the tasks that many students do reluctantly. However, I found that the poem sorting activity completed in class is an excellent way to engage learners as it requires them to complete an analysis of the text in a more dynamic way. It gives students the opportunity to respond to the poem in a personal way. In addition, students not only have to think critically and reflectively to explore the meaning of the text in order to sort out the excerpts, but also have to communicate effectively, exchanging ideas and opinions to reach an agreement to make sense of the entire poem.
Once the pieces are all organized and sorted, students have to contribute ideas and work collaboratively to reach a consensus to give the poem a title of their own. Thus, students learn from one another by making sense of the text together and potentially helping each other figure out the meaning of new words or concepts. In the next step, they have to be able to represent text visually, whether they choose to make a poster or a tableau, which requires further communication and collaborative work. This is why the tasks involved in this activity offer an opportunity for students to actively engage in the interpretation of a text as well as to express their own ideas. Not only by having to read and write text, but also by listening to and speaking with their peers and by viewing and interpreting images or visually representing the text, learners participate actively and creatively in all six language arts. In addition, greater student engagement is achieved when there is an opportunity for learners to choose how to complete a task. Thus, allowing students to choose their own excerpts and having the option to visually represent the poem through a tableau or a poster is likely to increase their active participation.
To conclude, through the poem sorting activity as well as some of the other activities completed in class so far, I have come to understand the importance of dramatization and visual representation in Language Arts teaching. I have also gained some knowledge on how to incorporate these two arts to teach things that I never thought could be connected, for example, poems and dramatization. I am also starting to see more clearly how my own experience in Language Arts influences my teaching, that is, how my own personal interests might directly influence what and how I teach, which is something I need to be aware of when I finally become a teacher. My experiencing a student led learning environment, in which curriculum content and core competencies connect, also contributes to reinforce for me the importance of maintaining this teaching approach as much as possible in my practice. Therefore, I look forward to deepening my knowledge in all these areas, as I have realized the possibilities are endless and there is plenty of room for improvement and learning.
All images CC0 Creative Commons.
One experience from my elementary school years that has influenced my beliefs as an educator is that teachers would regularly point out to my parents that my writing was very untidy and oftentimes terribly smudged. In kindergarten they had even considered failing me because my skills in the use of scissors was not meeting expectations. For someone who likes school and eventually did well, I clearly did not have a marvelous start.
The interesting thing is that all of these alleged shortcomings had a very straightforward explanation and an even simpler solution. I was, and still am, left-handed. Thankfully, I was born after left-handed people were forced to convert handedness. When using scissors I was using a tool designed for right-handers. When writing, I not only had to work on developing the necessary level of hand dexterity, but I also had to slowly learn to adjust the way in which I positioned my hand so that it would not slide over what I had just written. And to top it all up, I was sat to the right of a right-hander so our elbows kept colliding, leading to random lines coming out of my letters. I suppose nobody, except my parents, had taken the time to notice that I was left-handed, let alone think of how to adapt the learning environment to my skills and needs.
What was the solution? Well, I was moved to the left of the right-hander so my letters no longer had lines shooting in different directions caused by our elbows colliding as we wrote. And eventually, I learned to place my hand in way that it would not run over the text as I wrote. I am not sure what the solution was for the use of scissors, other than that I managed to learn how to use those designed for right-handers. Fortunately, nowadays these basic implements include designs with symmetrical handles for either left or right hand use or even reversed blades that allow left-handers to see the lines they are cutting!
As absurd is it may sound, one of my biggest fears as I embark in this new path is how I will manage to write legibly and at a reasonable speed on the board using my left hand. I must admit that when it comes to handwriting I am still fully left-handed, but I have become a decent right-hander when writing on boards. I have not resolved this arguably shallow matter yet, but I am hoping that eventually I will come up with a good solution.
As teachers we need to take the time to observe our students carefully, so that we can identify their needs, their skills, their dreams and fears and their challenges, rather than rushing to conclusions about their shortcomings and limitations.
Looking back at my elementary and high school years as well as my years in college, I understand that I had a number of teachers who were able to propel my learning forward, teachers who succeeded at creating an engaging environment that sparked students’ interest and curiosity.
When I finished high school I decided to pursue a career in languages, more specifically translation. The interesting thing about translators is that we learn a little bit of everything as we have to translate all kinds of documents from airplane manuals to birth certificates, to medical reports. For many years, I loved my profession, but after working at home for almost two decades I started feeling very lonely. During high school, I had quite enjoyed tutoring children who struggled with English. It had given me great joy to see those children grow and make progress. As I did not have a teaching license, I decided to teach Spanish for adults at the local community centre. My first group was quite large, with sixteen students who ranged in level and age. Preparing classes for many levels and interests was a challenge, but I looked forward to every class and it was very rewarding to see my students learn and enjoy the experience.
When my children started school, I had the opportunity to volunteer in their classroom. I would help with reading on Tuesdays, during field trips or with other tasks such as organizing students’ art books. A few years ago, I was also contacted by a local high school whose Spanish teacher had left a few months before the end of the school. They were looking for someone to take over temporarily. This time the challenge was different as I had to teach grade 10 students who no longer idolize their teachers and had little interest in learning Spanish. After the first class, I realized I had to adapt the content to make it more relevant to their lives in order to engage these young adults. Although I was not able to change the learning experience these students had had during the previous months, this new approach eventually led to improved student engagement. This experience was very inspiring as it shows the teacher’s ability to identify student’s skills, goals, interests and fears is key for a successful learning experience.
These experiences slowly led me to realize how much I missed and enjoyed being in a learning environment and the happiness student growth used to bring me. The contrast between the feelings of isolation and loneliness working from home caused in me and the joy and satisfaction teaching brought about slowly became very apparent and I realized it was time to make a change.
Although this new path has just begun, I am very excited about one day having my own classroom. I believe all children have something special and are capable of learning. Just like I was a curious child who was eager to learn, I look forward to inspiring in my students that desire to learn and to find out more, to help them grow and develop their skills and overcome their challenges in an engaging and loving learning environment.