Sunday, May 02, 2004

Prepare, Perform, Debrief, Do It Again

I remember hearing a lecture in a child development class about a study of organizations that worked successfully with "at-risk" youth - all kinds of organizations, they basically followed the kids to see where they REALLY went, and where they went back - and learning about a very important cycle: Prepare, Perform, Debrief, Do It Again. One of the many things the successful organizations had in common was that they gave the kids a chance to practice and develop certain skills, perform in a public forum, get feedback, and then do it again, and again, and again. This was true of basketball, theater, scouting, you name it.

I have put this cycle into practice in my classroom, in the infamous lab reports, and it is paying off. Occasionally a student even asks if they can do another lab report! These are not, by most children's standards, particularly "fun" assignments, but I think I have succeeded in making them something the kids can master, over time. We do lab reports at least once every two months, sometimes more often. They are written based on an in-class experiment. Sometimes I give them the question and the procedure, other times they develop their own question (on a particular topic) with their group. The lab report has had essentially the same sections since the kids started sixth grade, although I've added Variables towards the beginning. Some are written on complicated experiments with multiple procedures; others are comparably simple. The format of the paper and the grading rubric are the same. I have a large collection of little slips of paper with the rubric pre-printed, which I use to grade, and I write comments on a few lines to the right of the rubric.

The students begin by writing and handing in a first draft, which I edit extensively. I would prefer to have the kids do more of the editing on their own, but because this style of writing is so different from what they've done before, and because of time constraints, I end up doing most of the editing. The seventh graders have the option of editing their own papers and declaring their first draft to be a final draft, for me to grade rather than edit (although if it isn't good, I always allow them to rewrite anyway!). I give back the first drafts, and a few days later they hand in final drafts, which get a grade and only a smattering of comments. Then I post all lab reports that received a 90% or higher. The kids really do look at each other's lab reports, and a benefit of having their best work posted is that once one or two kids caught on to how to make their report look really professional (centering the title, appropriate font size, etc.), lots of other kids started imitating what they saw on the bulletin board. Kids who fail - 75% or lower - have the option of re-writing a third time. Some kids I will harrass to rewrite, but for most, this is their own choice. Many who are still struggling to learn the form will take me up on the rewrite offer. They are required to meet with me at lunchtime to go through their report and talk about it before they rewrite. These final rewrites always improve, and almost always earn a passing grade, and the kids gain confidence that they CAN produce acceptable work. So, they all get feedback on their work, and then they do it again, a few weeks or months later.

I have seen remarkable improvement in the lab reports over time. The seventh graders just turned in what is probably their tenth lab report since the start of sixth grade. A number of students did not complete the assignment, but of those who did, the vast majority achieved grades in the 80's or higher. Kids who started out struggling with lab reports are getting 90's now. Sections that were difficult for them are starting to "click" for more and more kids - Sources of Error, for example, used to be a mystery to most of them. They would tell me about problems with fighting among group members. I didn't sweat it, but tried to find examples of sources of error in class discussions. During the last few months, first a handful, then a bunch, and now many of the seventh graders understand that I am looking for little problems that might have thrown off their results. The kids' Conclusions are also improving; slowly - very slowly - more and more kids are starting to really EXPLAIN their results, theorize about WHY they got the particular results they got, and dig down to the level of molecules for their explanations. Again, I'm not sweating it. This is an abstract idea, and I think some kids just have to grow into it. The more they see and hear that kind of deep explanation from me and their classmates, the sooner they will figure it out. And they will have many opportunities to try again, do better, take it to the next level - prepare, perform, debrief, do it again....

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