I received an email a few weeks ago asking for an unusual request.
I just finished piloting a module about researching and composing an argumentative essay for Washington State’s Bridge to College program, and its organizers wanted me to reflect on my experience. The Bridge to College program is a high school course for 12th graders to prepare them for the rigors of college (you can read more about it here in my previous blog post). I was selected amongst a small group of teachers across the state to pilot individual modules in the curriculum. The feedback from the module pilots will be used to help implement the entire course next fall.
The previous six weeks I had ate, drank, and breathed Bridge to College by instructing the module lesson plans, grading and selecting student work as sample exemplars, and reflecting on the experience in a journal in the wee hours of the night. In addition, I had traveled to Seattle’s University District, Highline Community College, and Clark College in Vancouver, WA for periodic trainings. With the pilot consuming a large part of my professional (and personal time), you can imagine I had lots to say about the module’s trials and errors.
My guess was that the organizers wanted my feedback about teaching the course. They did, but not in a way I expected. Here is the gist of the email:
Would you evaluate your module on the following soft skills presented to the students?
• They become self-directed learners who can engage in academic tasks independently.
• They demonstrate “grit” and persistence during academic tasks.
• They demonstrate metacognitive awareness.
• They respond to the varying demands of audience, task, purpose, and discipline.
• They comprehend as well as critique.
Which ones are the MOST applicable to your module? Could you explain where you feel the MOST applicable skills were captured?
Thanks OSPI and SBCTC
I was dumbfounded.
I felt like the alien civilization in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Galaxy that was speechless after waiting 7 1/2 million years to learn that the answer to life, the universe, and everything calculated by the super computer Deep Thought was, simply, “42.” When the computer creators responded they were perplexed what “42” meant, Deep Thought coldly informs them, “I think the problem is that you’ve never actually known what the question was.”
That’s how I felt reflecting on the pilot. I wasn’t sure what type of feedback the course organizers wanted from me. I rambled on in my thirty-eight page journal about the tweaks I made to the curriculum, challenges I had instructing the material, and my students’ struggles and success on their formative and summative assignments. I didn’t even consider reflecting on what “soft skills,” or character skills, the module prepared students for life beyond the classroom.
But, then I looked at this as an opportunity. How often are we asked as educators to reflect on how our curriculum prepares our students for life? As I discussed in a previous post, the architects of the Common Core developed the standards to prepare all students for college and career readiness. A real group of stakeholders was asking me to demonstrate how my instruction of this module was fulfilling that promise. I should be excited my opinion mattered.
In tribute to Deep Thought, here are my 42 takeaways:
1. The unit began reading having students read four essays debating whether food should be mass distributed or locally farmed. This was supposed to model how to research an argumentative essay.
2. My students learned how to annotate texts looking for author, purpose, audience, and logically fallacies. That’s good.
3. They had interest in the topic. That’s good as well.
4. I had a friend who is a nutritionist teach my students how to read food labels. They liked her.
5. I asked them to make a food log on their food consumption. The purpose was to teach them to use their own experience in their research. They missed the point.
6. One student told me, “I know fast food is bad for me, and organic food is healthy. But, I like fast food.” He really missed the point.
7. I used an AP Lang prompt on Locavores as a way to show students how to synthesize sources in an essay. This confused them.
8. Then, we worked on developing essay topics for their own argumentative essay. That was helpful.
9. They could write on a debate within a career, or an issue they were passionate about.
10. We spent time researching careers. They liked that.
11. I had them research political issues on a number of non-profit websites. None of them found the issues interesting.
12. The module gave them a choice between writing an argumentative essay or a persuasive letter.
13. All decided to write an essay.
14. I learned, if I wanted to coax some of them to write a letter, I had to teach them how to find authentic audiences.
15. When they heard audience, that meant to them, writing to me
16. …because I graded their essays
17. …. because they had to earn a passing grade
18. …since the essay is a graduation requirement at my school.
19. They did learn how to evaluate sources
20. …and how to annotate their notes
21. …and to identify the counterargument to their position on an issue.
22. They learned how authors use rhetorical devices to persuade an audience
23. …and many used rhetorical devices effectively in their writing
24. …like rhetorical questions
25. …and parallelism,
26. …especially in their hooks and calls to action.
27. They also learned grit
28. …by meeting deadlines
29. …and challenging themselves to complete three drafts
30. …and complete the whole project in six weeks.
31. Some even learned metacognitive awareness
32. …by reflecting how the issue mattered to them
33. …like arguing acupuncture is an effective medical treatment
34. …because a student watched how it helped treat her grandfather’s chronic bad back
35. …or how art therapy helps
36. … a student’s autistic brother cope with his autism.
37. The students learned how to critique the food articles
38. …and their sources
39. …and their peers’ writing
40. …and their own writing.
41. But based upon the student exit surveys, the most valuable lesson from the unit was..
42. …how their passions can tie to their schooling, and help them find a career, or at least, a pathway after graduation.
Unfortunately, my district decided not to adopt the Bridge to College course. But OSPI and SBCTC have generously free-sourced the modules to anyone who is interested.
My hope is the kids in the Bridge to College course may find something that even a super computer like Deep Thought can’t – their individual pathway to a successful life.