Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Fostering Critical Thinking by Implementing Scholarly Behavior

One of our goals as teachers is to engage our students in critical thinking, going beyond just knowing the right answer, and bubbling the correct response into a multiple-choice assessment. We are doing an extreme disservice to our students if we don't provide them with the strategies and opportunities to analyze what they are learning and synthesize that information so that they can form their own theories and ideas about that particular concept.

I love the fact that one of the goals we are working on through our Teaching American History Grant Project , is teaching our students to think like a historians, and in particular, we are focusing on the skills of seeing the larger view of history as well as building a personal connection to the past.

In order to teach students to use these critical thinking skills, I believe we need to provide our students with specific strategies that exemplify what critical thinking would look like on a day-to-day basis. For the past several years, I have taught my students and their parents about scholarly behavior, because regardless of one's intellectual ability, everyone can make the decision to be scholarly. We would target one behavior each month, and students would need to reflect on that particular behavior each week, providing specific evidence of how they demonstrated that behavior.

Sometimes my students would struggle with trying to come up with concrete evidence to demonstrate their behavior; however, I believe that by examining primary source documents, trade books and other texts to to determine the "big picture" of history by teaching our students to determine the main ideas as well as teaching them to establish a sense of time, scope and sequence within a historical context, we provide them with a concrete means to "ponder ideas and problems", one of the scholarly behaviors. I also see that by encouraging my students to make personal connections to the past, this provides opportunities for my students to really view ideas and problems from multiple viewpoints in order to make those connections, another one of the scholarly behaviors. I truly can see that by teaching our students to think historically, we are providing them with numerous opportunities to document their own scholarliness, giving them a stronger sense of self-efficacy.

The following list is by no means my own; I attended a workshop for Gifted and Talented Education several years ago, and these concepts were introduced during that training.

Definitions of Scholarly Behavior:

Scholars come to school prepared to learn. They bring their tools (thoughts, questions, great attitudes) with them.
Scholars set both short and long term goals for themselves. They have vision.
Scholars exercise their intellect by trying challenging tasks.
Scholars view ideas and problems from multiple viewpoints and perspectives.
Scholars spend time pondering ideas and problems.
Scholars look at families of resources. They include fiction and non-fiction as well as different genres of research.
Scholars consider themselves “half-full”.  They exercise academic humility by realizing that they have more to learn.
Scholars save ideas, documents, and unfinished work so that they can come back to them later.
Scholars are curious. They ask thoughtful questions.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Fostering Creativity by Encouraging Risk Taking

In order to foster creativity in the classroom, I feel it is very important to create a safe environment for risk taking . As teachers we must model what it looks like to be a risk taker ourselves and then encourage our students to follow our lead. One aspect of risk taking is the willingness to make mistakes, followed with a willingness to learn from those mistakes. I often have shared with my students that if being smart was a result of learning from one's mistakes, then I must be one of the smartest people in the world! (I seem to get a LOT of thumbs-up from students on that one!)

Several years ago, a fellow colleague shared an affirmation that she recited with her students each morning, and being the good teacher that I am, I stole her idea and began reciting the following affirmation with my students:


I can be anything I want to be.
I am an important person in this world.
My attitude is the best,and I can cooperate.
I can dream dreams and make those dreams come true.
Every new day is an opportunity to improve myself.
I can take a risk; it may be difficult, but it is possible.
It is never too late for me to improve.
I will learn from my mistakes.
~Author Unknown

I would frequently share with my students that if we say something long enough, we begin to believe it, if we believe something long enough, it will become our conviction, if we have convictions long enough, they will become part of our character, and if something is part of our character long enough, it becomes part of our reputation; and it was certainly my goal that all of us, including myself, would have the reputation of being risk takers. (Okay, okay, I know this is dangerously close to brainwashing, but whatever works to encourage risk taking, works for me!)

Each time I asked my students to participate in a shared inquiry in a literature discussion, to show their thinking on a math problem using multiple representations, to provide evidence of their arguments and to recognize the validity of opposing point of views in their essays, I knew I was challenging them to be risk takers. Often the process involved making mistakes, then having to learn from those mistakes, forcing them to refine the process, and finally trying it all over again. In fact, each day a student showed up in my classroom, I respected the fact that he/she was taking a risk, trusting that although I very likely could have been making  mistakes in the process, it was always my goal to be there to guide him/her through the learning experience in a way that was meaningful and engaging to that student.

Not only do I appreciate risk taking in students, but I also appreciate teachers who are willing to take risks in their own professional journeys as well. A special thanks to all of my colleagues in the Foundations Teaching American History Grant Project who truly exemplify the words of this affirmation. I appreciate their willingness to take risks and foster their own creativity as teachers by participating in the professional development training and collaborating with each other on best practices not only in person, but also through the use of Web 2.0 technologies such as blogs and web-based presentation tools. Their insights inspire me and push my thinking. I am grateful  for the opportunity to learn from them each day.