Recently, I began a unit on the basics of grammar with my Grade 10 Applied students. Prior to the beginning of the unit, I gave the students a fairly simple pre-unit assessment to see if they could remember the definitions of the basic parts of speech: nouns (concrete vs. abstract, common vs. proper), verbs, capitals, periods, subject vs. predicate, and pronouns — all concepts the Grade 9 Applied teacher told me they had learned with her last year.
My goal was to use the results of this pre-test to plan more precisely for the students; in other words, if most of the students demonstrated that they had a solid grasp on these concepts, then why have them sit through learning about them entirely again? Or, conversely, if the prevailing pattern was that most of them needed remediation, then that was the path I would take. The test results proved the latter: most of the students scored very low and only one or two approached 50%. My path was clear. Or so I thought until a few days ago.
After teaching the students about the basic definition of verbs as well as two broad categories (action vs. abstract / state of being) using a number of different instructional strategies (concept attainment, brainstorming, graffiti, PWIM, etc.), the students engaged in some practice sheets that involved filling in the blanks. Honouring the results I discovered at the beginning of the unit, I offered a rudimentary version of tiering for the students: I asked the students to draw a line on their worksheet at the number 12. I then handed out pairs of dice to the students at their work tables. The instruction was for students to use, again, a rudimentary version of Think Dots (akin to Cubing): students rolled the dice and whatever number came up then the students had to complete that number. If the students didn’t like that number, then the could roll again once. The tiering came into play when I said that they had to complete this rolling pattern a minimum of three times. Completing only three (or four) questions out of 12 was intended to allow the students who may have been struggling with the definitions to complete some work and feel some success.
What I didn’t expect (and should have) was that some students zoomed ahead and finished the sheet very quickly because they ‘got it’ quick. These three or four students then said to me, “I’m done. What do I do now?” Luckily I had more sheets ready to go, but, upon reflection, to my mind, that’s not quite good enough on my part.
In other words, students who are ready for more challenging work don’t need MORE of the easy work; they need work that is an appropriate challenge for them at that moment. (This is getting into Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development territory, I believe…) Easier said than done.
So, I talked it over with my wife Michelle, who teaches Grade 1 at Our Lady of Lourdes (Catholic) in Delaware. (Not to be cheesy, but my wife has a natural gift for thinking about education and I often present her with problems I find vexing and she, not unlike McGyver, will come up with a solution I didn’t even know existed…) In our conversation, some interesting ideas came up that I think I will try:
The ‘northstar’ here is the Ministry expectation(s) for that unit; all of the students will be assessed according to that expectation. In order to achieve a Level 3, students must demonstrate “considerable understanding of the concept”.
But what about students who can go beyond Level 3, who can ‘zoom ahead’? According the MoE English Curriculum document, these students need to show “thorough understanding of the content”, and these students should have the opportunity to show how thoroughly they understand the content through analysis and applying and connecting the concepts to the world around them.
Some strategies I will explore are:
- Ask the students to create their own sentences with the grammatical concept they are learning.
- I could sit down and interview the students and ask them to explain their thinking, which requires them to solidify their thought processes and decisions.
- I could give the students a challenging text and challenge them to find more difficult verbs in that text.
- I could have an activity similar to the board game Scattergories ready for these students, where they have to think of as many verbs (for example) that begin with a letter from the alphabet.
- I could challenge students to find synonyms and antonyms for certain words.
- I could ask students to write a reflection on a time when they actually performed one of these verbs in real life (A time when you fell or slipped, etc.)
- I could ask students to complete a Synectics activity.
- I could ask students to look at a grammatical concept using 6 Thinking Hats.
- I could ask students to look at a grammatical concept using Bloom’s Taxonomy.
- I could ask students to look at a grammatical concept using Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences (and I could present this using a Choice Board).