Saturday, December 15, 2012

Condolences Are Not Enough!

I have been at a loss for words because as a mom, a teacher, a wife, I cannot even imagine what these families must be feeling. How can these families ever recover? How can that school ever return to normalcy? Will it ever? Probably not. I keep thinking what if it had been my daughters, or my husband, my own mother who was a teacher. I keep thinking about the recent shootings at the mall in Oregon, and at the movie theater, and I think what kind of life are we living, where we are afraid to go to the mall, the movies or even send our children to school for fear that some psychopath will open fire and kill us or destroy our joy for life. I do not even know what to say to help these families deal with their pain. It is that feeling of helplessness that we cannot allow to set in...that feeling that it's just part of what life is like just never know when you're at wrong place at the wrong time. We cannot live with this type of fear. We must do something about mental health; we must do something about gun control; we must do something about our fascination with violence; we must do something so that not only the lives of these children and adults are forever remembered, but all those who have died these senseless deaths.  I am positive that the shooter had to have had a history of violence and mental illness. No sane person goes on a shooting rampage. How was he able to buy guns? What laws made it easy for him, and make it easy for others like him to go out and buy whatever weapons they want so they can kill and terrorize us? Who is in control here? Where are the laws to protect our right to live without fear? I believe in the protection of our right to bear arms, but in our current society, I prefer the protection of my right, my family's right, and my neighbors' right to go out into the world and feel safe to study,work, play and just live without the fear of getting shot in the head.  What solace can we give these families? The only thing we can do is write to our government, make phone calls, ask questions and demand answers and actions from our leaders requiring help for the mentally ill, and gun control laws so that this never ever happens again. We cannot become complacent and forget about this a month from now and just move on. We are getting too used to hearing about these massacres, and if we don't take action, what if these massacres become so commonplace that we begin to turn to the internet for our sole means of our education, our shopping, our interactions, afraid of leaving our homes for fear of being shot. What kind of society will we become if we allow this to continue happening? Regular people can't hire body guards. Where is it safe to go these days if we can't even send our children to school, or enjoy shopping and a movie?  

My heart, my prayers, my tears, my hugs, and all my love go out to these children and these adults who lost their lives for nothing and to the families who are left behind. But that is not enough. My condolences will not change anything. My writing to Congress and calling them and letting them know they must do something may, but only if there are millions of other citizens that do as well.  Let's ensure that these lives were not lost in vain...that we do something to make sure this never happens again. If there's a heaven, I'm sure these children and adults are praying that that's what we'll do. 

May God give these families strength and comfort to live on without their loved ones! 

Friday, December 7, 2012

Problem Based Learning, Part One: Learning to Create Questions and Find Answers Using QAR & Wikis

One of the most important skills students need to learn for successful Problem Based Learning is asking and answering questions.  In many classrooms, the teacher is the only one asking the thought-provoking questions when ideally the act of asking and answering questions should be shared by both the teacher and student. 

How do we help our students learn this necessary skill they will use for the rest of their literate lives? And, how do we prepare students to ask and answer thought-provoking questions if we want to implement Problem Based Learning in our classrooms? PBL depends on a student's ability to generate driving questions, research, make sense of various text structures, make inferences, raise more and more questions, and create original content in response to their driving questions.

If kids don't know how to generate questions and answer them properly, PBL will not flourish. So, step one in the pre-planning stages of effective PBL implementation is teaching students how to read texts strategically, raise questions about texts, and know where to find answers to these questions: in the text, in their heads or both.

What Is Q-A-R, Question-Answer-Relationships?

Dr. Taffy Raphael's Q-A-R, or Question Answer Relationships is an important strategy to teach students and ensure they understand how, when and why to apply it, so they can be successful at both generating driving questions during the PBL process, and knowing where and how to find the answers.
Image taken from
First, we need to help students understand there is a relationship between information we read, hear or see, and information from our own backgrounds, and we cannot solely rely on either one to find or provide answers. Some questions will require that we find the answers in the text.  As Dr. Taffy Raphael coined, some questions have answers found "Right There", "In the Book", meaning the answer is in one spot, staring right at you; others are also "In the Book", but you must "Think and Search"; the answers are going to be scattered throughout the text. While there are even other questions Dr. Raphael calls, "In my Head": "Author and You" which may require us to make text to self, text to world, and text to text connections as we read, see or hear a text. "On my Own" questions also fall under "In My Head" too, and also activate our prior knowledge, but without necessarily having to make a connection to the text at hand, especially when this type of question is posed before reading, seeing or hearing a particular text.  

The catch though, especially for PBL, is that when we make use of our background knowledge or experiences to answer an "In my Head": "Author and You" question, we must "back up" whatever example we used from our background knowledge or experiences with a textual example. This textual support does not necessarily have to be a fact, in some cases, but it is an example taken from the text we read, saw, or heard to prove that we understood there is a relationship between what's in the text and what's in our heads. Students must learn to understand that answers to some questions will not be found waiting for us already highlighted in a text, nor can we conveniently draw solely from our reservoir of life experiences to answer them. The best answers to complex questions rely on using a credible text for proof, and background knowledge to make logical sense, and prove a point. (Determining credible sources is also a difficult skill students must learn as well for PBL.) The textual support aspect strengthens our text to self, text to world, or text to text connections. Without textual support, our background knowledge as the sole means of answering a question is weak. Dr. Taffy has stated that, “Kids may argue about which QAR it is, but in the end, that’s just great as they are arguing about what source provides appropriate or ‘best’ evidence.” (And, by the way, isn't this what our country struggles with more than ever before, the inability to back up an opinion with a solid fact or any type of evidence...don't want to digress... this is a whole other topic for another day, but students must practice providing textual support every single day when they answer questions in class so they can grow up to have civil, logical discussions as adults based on fact, not hearsay (See We rely so much on just taking someone's opinion or experience as fact without ever demanding any concrete proof of its validity.) 

Anyway, I did digress, but these are all important issues to consider when planning and carrying out PBL: ensuring that whatever information students find, they have credible textual evidence to back up their contentions. This takes time to practice. Begin on the second day of school!

Why Should We Teach Q-A-R, Question-Answer-Relationships, or better yet, 
                                       Why Haven't We Been Teaching This Strategy ?

So, back to Q-A-R, or question answer relationships. Once students grasp and begin to internalize the strategy that questions can be categorized as either "In the Book", or "In my Head", and that different types of questions require different types of thinking to find the answers, they will begin to recognize and generate these types of questions independently, and voila, a student-centered environment is born! Students will be able to lead their own discussions while the teacher coaches and redirects when necessary, but for the most part, students will be the ones asking and answering their own questions and those raised by their peers. Q-A-R prepares them to properly answer questions with textual evidence, recognize text structures, make inferences, and know where to search for answers in the text, in their heads, or both.

These, of course, are skills that take months to master, and it is beyond my understanding why students as early as kindergarten aren't taught a basic version of Q-A-R to prepare for asking and answering questions in the primary grades. Which brings me to the next section of this topic: are all students ready for such sophisticated thinking? YES, of course, even if they struggle with literacy, we must never underestimate a person's ability to be inquisitive!  Q-A-R will improve their literacy skills, guaranteed! According to Dr. Raphael, a basic version of Q-A-R can be introduced before second grade where students are taught there are answers to questions found in a book or story they read, and questions and answers that can only be found in their heads. With proper modeling, guided practice and independent practice, young students can learn to recognize these two basic question types. Perhaps PBL would not be so difficult to implement in the upper elementary grades because the most difficult step would have already been taught: the process of generating driving questions. What better time to teach students about Q-A-R than kindergarten when they all have inquisitive little minds.  Unfortunately, in my personal teaching experience as a 10th grade teacher, many of my students had never participated in a PBL project, let alone been allowed to generate their own questions to lead their own discussions. Kids have to learn how to read strategically and generate their own critical thinking questions if we are to sustain our democracy and prepare students for the 21st century workforce.

How do I Teach Q-A-R in my elementary, middle or high school class? 

With constant modeling, guided and independent practice using the Q-A-R strategy, students, regardless of their learning challenges, will be able to generate critical thinking questions for themselves. As the teacher, you no longer are the only one posing the driving questions.

The Q-A-R strategy equips students with the ability to analyze text, make inferences, and know how to  provide textual support.  I won't lie, though, some students will grasp Q-A-R immediately, while some students will need lots of practice, but that is what teaching is all about...every student learns at his/her own pace, but no one should be denied the opportunity to learn how to read and ask and answer critical thinking questions. 

One way I introduce Q-A-R is through fairy tales, even in high school, the kids love it. Using non-print texts too like popular movies is another way I've introduced the concept, basically finding a common context familiar to all students is key for initially modeling the strategy.  After explaining the concept questions and answers come in various shapes and sizes, sort to speak, I share a familiar fairy tale, and then model each "question type" and corresponding "answer type". It's important that students clearly understand the differences between the "In the Book" and "In My Head" categories, and each question and answer type within each category. One of the most difficult aspects of Q-A-R is helping students see the minute differences between each type, "Author and You" and "On My Own", or even "Think and Search" and "Author and You". Students will also struggle with understanding why sometimes some questions may fall into both "In the Book" and "In My Head". But again, as Dr. Raphael says, “Kids may argue about which QAR it is, but in the end, that’s just great as they are arguing about what source provides appropriate or ‘best’ evidence.” When initially modeling, be sure to give examples that fall only in one category and question type. Move on to the fuzzy ones, later. Providing lots of practice and discussing why some questions may belong in more than one category is critical.  

Give plenty of question examples for each category, and allow students to generate examples as well as share and discuss why their examples are correctly or incorrectly categorized.  When moving on to teach "In My Head", be sure to remind students about the importance of activating their background knowledge, but always providing textual support.  For guided practice, I pair up students and have them fold their papers to create four squares, label their papers as such (see image on the right), and choose a favorite book, short story, movie or even a poem to generate questions. For added practice, students "popcorn" or call on each other until everyone has been called at least twice. The student who is called on has to identify what type of question the student who called on him/her generated, and must identify, and justify how/where they can find the answer to the question.  The point during the initial guided practice is not necessarily to find and give the answer, but rather to practice recognizing the relationship between the question and type of thinking that will be required to provide an answer. Students have to be able to explain what the relationship is between the question and the answer that makes the question fall under a particular category.  

Wikis to Practice and Master Q-A-R, and in PBL to develop Driving Questions

Of course, Q-A-R takes time and I highly recommend teaching this skill from day one so students have all year to practice internalizing it. More advanced practice obviously involves using more sophisticated print and non print texts to offer strategic reading practice by generating critical thinking questions and answers. I also have students practice labeling the questions in their content area textbooks with the various QAR question types to recognize they can apply the QAR strategy all the time.  Once students master Q-A-R, they will be well prepared to generate driving questions on their own since for PBL, "In My Head": "On My Own" questions are typically questions asked before reading to activate prior knowledge. Driving questions for PBL will be either "Author and You" or "On My Own" because students won't find all the answers solely in a text; they must complete the answer with a connection to self, the world or other text. 

Wikis will also allow students to work collaboratively with local, national or global peers to practice the Q-A-R strategy and/or collaborate for PBL. On a wiki, students can post print and non-print sources along with a variety of the question types for their peers to answer to create a collaborative learning community. Students can take turns at both asking wiki members to label each question type and answer each accordingly, with textual support when required. The exchange created through the collaborative postings on the wiki provides peer modeling and feedback of QAR. The wiki will probably not be flawless at first; however, the teacher can participate in the wiki and engage students in a dialogue about revision and editing, also critical skills for PBL.  When students pose and answer questions on a wiki, they will be reflecting on question types and types of thinking needed to answer different question types, which ultimately prepares them to generate deeper, higher order questions, the driving questions needed for PBL. 

Participation in a wiki will help students gain the needed practice to become strategic readers, questioners, independent critical thinkers, collaborators and of course successful Problem Based Learners!  

Please visit the Buck Institute for Education to learn more about PBL, and create your own Tubric, a tool which reinforces Q-A-R and helps students and teachers generate their original driving questions. Watch the video explanation below!

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Problem Based Learning Should Not Be Problematic

What PBL Isn't

Problem Based Learning is NOT the teacher assigning students random topics to research independently. Problem Based Learning is NOT assigning students to design a board game summarizing a book's plot events or themes. It is NOT a diorama, book report, or a skit.  (The skit may end up being the culminating product of a PBL project, but its purpose must be to address the PBL's driving question.)

It is not a group project where the high achieving students carry all the weight for the low achieving ones, but everyone earns the same grade. Problem Based Learning can NOT flourish in a vacuum.  In a PBL, the teacher does NOT run the show, will NOT work if desks are arranged in perfectly straight rows, if talking is forbidden, and if inquisitive students are perceived as annoying smart-alecks. Culminating PBL products are NOT frilly posters with glitter, buzz words, catch phrases to decorate a classroom, or hallway, or a 5 to 10 page essay or research paper.  Problem Based Learning is NOT easy.

                                      What PBL Is 
PBL is so much more than "hands on" learning. It's a teaching and learning experience giving students a choice to explore a real world topic of interest, and a voice to express original verbal or written content.  PBL begins when students, under the teacher's guidance when necessary, generate "Driving Questions" which will help students focus their investigations. 

Critics and skeptics may wonder, "How can students who struggle with literacy, and lack motivation, choose what they want to learn, how they want to learn, and how they will share what they learned with others?"  A well designed PBL, properly executed, gives all students, regardless of their learning challenges, an opportunity to not only pursue a topic of interest, but also express his/her voice about that issue. No matter what our station in life is, every human being has a natural desire to learn something.  PBL can be the catalyst to engage students and bring back that loving feeling toward learning they once felt as kindergartners.  PBL with ELLs and struggling readers may require more preparation and accommodations, but learning through inquiry and discovery should not be exclusive to gifted or high achieving students. All students deserve learning experiences where they must investigate, where they are in charge of generating the questions and finding texts or people who will answer their questions. All students need to experience collaboration, communication, especially with people of diverse backgrounds, deep analysis of a text, problem-solving, creating and sharing original work with real people, not just the teacher. 

Students need to practice how to think, not what to think. PBL makes this possible. Students need  to learn how to respectfully debate their ideas, and logically support their opinions not only to have a competitive edge in the the 21st century work force, but also to sustain our democratic way of life. PBL also makes this happen. A PBL project takes lots of time and energy, requires teachers plan extensively, model questioning effectively and prepare students so they can take the reigns of learning, discover a solution, plan of action or educated hypothesis about a real world problem they identified in the first place. PBL is about student inquiry of our real world issues, whether they be local, national or global, social, environmental, political, or economic. PBL is also about seeking real world high interest print and non print sources that inspire students to generate driving questions that will guide them in their research, leading them to conduct further investigations, draw conclusions, pose more questions, and ultimately present an original solution, product or content to an authentic audience.    

Problem Based Learning Projects Require:



The key to effective Problem Based Learning involves creating the right conditions in the classroom so PBL can occur.  Whether a pre-service teacher, beginning teacher, or veteran, the PBL conditions require teachers have strong classroom management skills and rapport with students, an ability to generate driving questions, and an ability, among many others, to model the skill of asking and answering thought-provoking questions.

In the next series of posts, I will:
  • discuss each of the 4 steps in the PBL process: SearchingSolvingCreating and Sharingand what each step entails for both student and teacher, including rubric design, embedding CCSS, assessments and more.
  • explore what PBL projects in various grade levels and subjects look like in more detail.
  • provide examples of organizations offering opportunities for global PBL.
  • share lots and lots of PBL resources and web 2.0 tools that facilitate PBL.  
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