Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Analysis: Breaking Down the Standard, Getting to the Core of the Work

Standards are fraught with challenge.  The foremost challenge is not a student challenge, but rather is a teacher challenge. Teachers must first understand each standard. What does the standard expect the student to know, understand, and be able to do?  Then they must be able to teach not only the content knowledge, but also the expected skill performance.

Marzano posits that teaching the Common Core standards requires a different skill than most teachers have experience with in the classroom. It is essential that we teachers open ourselves to learning and to improving our craft.  I’ve witnessed many examples of instruction and assessment that don’t rise to the standard; I believe lack of understanding of the standard and lack of strategies prevent instruction and assessment from meeting the demands of the standards.

On that note, this post offers a strategy for teaching students to analyze.

Instruction must follow from a deep understanding and thorough unpacking of the standard.  The backward design process challenges many veteran teachers whose experience with curriculum involves selecting their favorite activities and chapters from an assigned textbook. 

Perhaps these are the teachers who test hundreds of obscure facts from the text under the premise that a student should read every word of the book and remember it verbatim; or, given standards, they seek out only the key content terms rather than the performance the standard expects.  For example, the test question may ask students “What is the organizational structure of the piece?” or “What is the Preamble?”   The focus here is on identification of key terms.

It is likely that students must know this background information in order to analyze it well, but when the assessment is comprised solely of identification and memorization items, the students will not build the skills they so desperately need to prepare them for college and career.

The days of identification level only tests are gone.  Or, they should be gone, replaced by a focus on standards, targets for student learning.  Granted, students must know facts and terms in the context of the standard’s required performance.  More precisely, though, what does the language of the standard tell us students must know, understand, and be able to do?

For the sake of example, let’s analyze this Georgia Performance Standard for a high school American Government class:
Analyze the purpose of government stated in the Preamble of the United States Constitution.

First, isolate the key terms.
Analyze the purpose of government stated in the Preamble of the United States Constitution.

Under a standards-based curriculum, I cannot simply teach these terms at the identification level.  This standard assumes the student knows the terms (or will learn them here).

I also find the noun purpose.  Students will need an understanding of what purpose is, but it is not an identification term like the other three.
Analyze the purpose of government stated in the Preamble of the United States Constitution.

Now my work is to determine what students must do with these terms. 
Isolate the action (the doing part!) of the standard.
Analyze the purpose of government stated in the Preamble of the United States Constitution.

 That’s it:  my students must be able to analyze.  Analyze what?  Analyze the purpose of government.  But not just any purpose of government.  The purpose of government stated in the Preamble of the United States Constitution.

So there it is, my students must know what the Preamble is, what the U.S. Constitution is, and what government is; they must understand each of the terms and the term purpose; and they must be able to analyze the purpose of government as stated in the Preamble of the United States Constitution.

Once we know what to teach, we have to know how to teach it. We can’t just tell students to analyze something.  After all, what does that really mean?  How do we analyze? 

Expecting students to be able to “analyze the structure of texts”  or to “analyze the purpose of government” without teachers understanding how to teach the skill of analysis and having tools to teach this skill will result in frustration more so than in increased achievement.

Analysis breaks a whole into its component parts.  Close reading provides us an avenue for finding the parts.  What are the parts of the Preamble?  In this case, it is possible to separate the phrases to more easily see them as separate items.

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Who:  We the People of the United States
Operational term that let’s me know that what follows is the purpose:  in Order to
To do what?  Heads up; the purpose is coming:
·       form a more perfect Union,
·       establish Justice
·       insure domestic Tranquility
·       provide for the common defence
·       promote the general Welfare
·       secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity
So they created (“do ordain and establish”) this product (this Constitution for the United States of America) in order to do all of the phrases above.

Highlighting and creating a bulleted column of items are strategies to help students visualize the various components of the text. Graphically organized.  Isolated.  Easy to see. Broken apart. 

Once we’ve identified the components of the text, venturing into understanding the meaning of each phrase really begins.  I believe it is important for teachers to work through this process with students to demonstrate how to locate the parts; then approach how to explain the meaning of the parts, and finally, how to bring it all together for a summary explanation of the text as a whole.

Explicit teaching is paramount.  Name the work.  Students need to know that the work here is analysis.  I’ve demonstrated two strategies, or tools, to use to analyze text. Students need to become familiar with a variety of tools to do the work.

How do you teach analysis?  How do students break down information into meaningful chunks or component parts?  What visual organization tools do you offer your students to aid in this process? 

Comment to share your ideas.

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