Thursday, April 25, 2013

Anagrams and Formative Assessment

Every Sunday my husband and I sit with our daughter after breakfast in front of our woodstove and read or listen to the NPR Weekend Edition Sunday Puzzle with Will Shortz.  Most of the time we make fun of the program and award the person who yells out the most random and wrong answers to his questions.  But once in awhile, we get one right. Or we conquer the weekly puzzle and enter the drawing to be on the show. It is very exciting even though we have yet to win. I do worry about the influence this has had on our daughter since she now follows Rachel on Twitter and requested Will's puzzle books as Xmas gifts.  However, because of she obsession with radio voices and puzzles I have become enlightened once again in the field of education.

I'm in love with anagrams. Scramble letters that turn into memorable phrases or names of countries or words with a "q" sound like cupid, or cubical have helped stimulate my brain during car rides, dinner dishes or right before bedtime.  My daughter likes them too and it has helped us have meaningful conversations instead of spending time on our electronic devices.  It was so much fun at home that I brought some word puzzles into school to use during study hall for students who refuse to study.  I was impressed at how eager students were to try and solve a random puzzle.  I have been researching the importance of spelling practices in secondary education.  I do not intentionally teach spelling and often will encourage students to avoid focusing on spelling in order to gain their focus on lengthy writings with more evidence. I know that elementary teachers have many methods for teaching spelling and coaxing children into spelling bees or other games.
Spelling and caring about spelling increases students ability to improve reading comprehension.  I have made myself take time to explain word derivation and etymology.  This takes time to prep and takes time from other classroom activities yet it has proven to be fruitful.  Students are answering test questions with greater confidence and higher scores.  And after a few practices I have found a way to use it as a formative assessment.
During the time that students enter the room and I begin teaching many minutes can be wasted.  Students also try to end class early and stand by the door for the last few minutes, jostling to be the first one out.  I have curbed this waste of time by only allowing them to do so if they fill out a formative assessment.  The First Five- is one of three routines.  Reading a prepared slip of text on a current event, summarizing the event in their own words and attaching one of three stories presented in a group review, to a map of the world hanging in the room is the first routine.  The second routine is to read an excerpt and sketch what the excerpt is about.  That is fun to share.  The final routine is to make a graphic organizer from the vocabulary word of choice.  I give them a vocabulary word, break out and define the phonemes and they circle the word, draw lines away from the word and brainstorm synonyms or sketch ideas.
I don't have time to collect and grade the First Five.  But while they are busy, I take attendance, hand back papers and answer questions that they have, redirect miscues and develop a sense of what students remember from a previous day.  Every five days I add a First Five grade out of 5 points as an assignment. Tardy or absent students can make it up.  Students who refuse to work can be sent to our literacy room to make up the task during study hall.  Its a win win.  They like the easy "A" and I like the conversations and time to get to know my students while they are engaged.

Exit strategy.  I take a word like "infrastructure" and ask them to give me an example of an infrastructure that exists in the country that they were just studying.  Some students jot down "railroads" on a scrap of paper. Some write, "juice" or "bikes".  I immediately sense that they are misdirected or just being silly. Or that they are guilty of not being on task.  Sometimes I ask students for a text to self connection or a worst case scenario of a vocabulary word.  And now I hand them anagrams.  I give them one or three definitions and three scrambled words.  This reinforces their reading of a definition and trying to recall or understand what that definition means.  But more importantly it enforces spelling.  Students have to know how to unscramble and spell a word correctly. If they can't do this then they can't stand by the door which is a bigger incentive than bonus points. What I noticed this week was that students were congregating around tables with their phones. By typing the definition they hoped to have the correct word appear.  Interestingly this also increased spelling awareness and more students tackling more than one anagram.

As for a word like infrastructure, I have to say, that my first reaction to seeing juice as an example of a country's greatest strength was laughter.  Curious, I approached this students who gave me an honest answer, "its the backbone of society, everybody loves juice!"   I realized that requiring students to analyze economic conditions in a failed state as a unit study was going to mean stepping back and deliberately reviewing this one term.  I spent an evening finding the most amazing examples of infrastructure I could find online.  I made certain that some were costly, some cheap, some expansive and some that were simple.  the glass Grand Canyon skywalk, the Hangzhou bridge, a piano staircase from and Kansas City green infrastructures were my main picks.  I added six more hitting every continent on the globe.  The next morning, the first five was spent with students reading about one example using their iPads.  They each walked around the room presenting an image or video and a quick synopsis.  Then each student voted for the top three.  Not only did they learn what the term meant but they learned what the term could be. This is a term that can give students the realization that their most imaginative ideas could become reality. I think there is a great deal of power in that.  Although, I still think that it is hard for them to argue for juice as an infrastructure.  No matter what, the student who DOES argue this will at least know its definition.

Hangzhou bridge-  (Popular Mechanics)
Kansas City Green Infrastructure
piano staircase (
Grand Canyon Skywalk (National Geographic)

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