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Skill Building
from Discovery and Respect: A Handbook for Student-directed Group Learning By Mallory Clarke

Explain what and why
Show how you do it

Teach how you do it
Guided Practice
Independent Practice
Teacher or other student helps
Students work alone
6th Return to the Project Students apply skill "for real"

Developing a good balance of time spent on skill building is always a challenge. Many tutoring and literacy programs focus all their curriculum on teaching discrete skills. Students come to class asking to learn to spell or to file out forms and sensitive instructors respond to those requests, sometimes to the exclusion of other kinds of learning. Some programs have set curriculum requiring classes to spend time preparing for standardized exams by getting certain skills under their belts.

Think about the difference between a class focused on discrete skills and one which, as described earlier, revolves around themes. Because they have been denied access to good educations, our students are often lacking certain kinds of information. By discovering or creating information needed to carry out a project on a theme, students begin to fill in gaps left by years of academic neglect. They begin to become independent learners in a community of co-workers. They experience how education can be integrating and sustaining.

We want to teach discrete skills, but we want to do it in a meaningful context. In fact, we've found that skills are learned more quickly and more lastingly when they are taught in order to accomplish ,immediate tasks that have some value to the students. It's much more difficult to memorize skills or a series of skills that are isolated from each other. The human mind seems more able to absorb information that is linked to other information in some way. For these reasons, we encourage classes to choose themes and integrate skill learning (and even drill) into the process of pursuing the theme.When it comes time to teach a specific skill needed in the pursuit of a theme, stop the action for a mini-lesson. We suggest the steps be planned out carefully. These are steps that will insure that the skill is truly learned by everyone in the class.

First step: Introduce
Begin by explaining what you will be teaching and how it is needed in order to continue work on the project. If the students have participated in the identification of the skills, you need only point out the skill you will be teaching on the list the class developed.

The following is more or less a word for word transcript of a good lesson I witnessed: The teacher opened with: "You've complained that you were confused about how to use capital letters as we were working on our letters to the program director. Everybody finally seems pretty happy with what we've written so it's time to work on cleaning the letters up and making them pretty. Let's start with capitalization. Tell me everything you know about capitalization. She recorded their answers on the board.

Second Step: Model
Show the students how it goes. Give them an opportunity to watch you perform the skill, whether it is looking up a number in a phone book or proofreading a letter you have written for punctuation errors. Narrate your actions with a running commentary, letting them in on what you're thinking. Mention when you have encountered a problem and let them watch you think it through. They will be learning how to perform this specific skill and how to think about solving reading and writing problems in general.

The second step in the lesson on capitalization went like this: Looks like you all know quite a bit about the rules for capitalization. The confusion must come in trying to apply them. Let me show you a way to be systematic about proofreading for caps." She pulled out a page of writing photocopied on to a transparency and put it on the overhead. (In a small class she could have put the paper in the middle of the table with students looking over her shoulder as she worked.) "'First, I'm going through and underlining all the caps. Now I'm going back and underlining all the words that maybe should be capped but aren't. Now one by one I'll go through and decide which rule, if any, applies to this underlined letter. This uppercase "R" is first. Let's see. That's the beginning of a sentence, so I'm right it should be capitalized. This next one is a lower case "m"; it begins the name of a day of the week: Monday. The rule says to capitalize days of the week, so I'll correct this "m" and make it uppercase." She narrated her actions and thinking aloud for the entire page of writing.

Third Step: Teach
Directly teach the skill to the students. There are many ways to accomplish this. You can ask the students to look at correct and incorrect examples and guess the rules to follow to create correct examples. You can copy teaching pages from workbooks. (For those of you who have lusted after worksheets, here's your chance.) You can walk them through the steps, each at their own place or with one or two at the board. Your teaching style, your students' learning styles and the requirements of the skill to be learned will dictate how it should be taught.

The lesson on capitalization continues: The teacher wrote a sentence from a student's letter on the blackboard and sat down. She asked the students to sit in pairs, with one pair at the board. The sitting students were to follow the instructions given to the two at the board and help them out if they got stuck. The two at the board were asked to underline ail the caps and possible caps. The sitting students added any additional possible caps that they had underlined at their seats. Then she said, "Okay, the first underlined letter, is there a rule in the list we made that fits that first letter?. The students responded with yes and pointed it out on the board. The teacher asked them why it fit and they explained. She directed them to each new letter and through the process of rule finding and explanation. Sometimes sitting students would assist in explaining how and why the rule applied to a certain letter. Then the next pair got up and tackled a new sentence from a different student's letter. Eventually students began to explain the reasons for or against capitalization without reference to the list on the board. When most of the students were at the point of having mastered understanding the skill and were on the verge of getting restless, the teacher began using outrageous sentences to keep their attention and focus them on helping the last two struggling students.

Fourth Step: Guided Practice
Once the students have the general idea, they will need to practice. During this step, teachers need to be very knowledgeable about their students as some skills and some students require more practice than others. Repeated drill is deadly to the human mind, but plenty of practice means the difference between temporary memorization and real learning. To start, arrange it so there are very few opportunities to make errors. You can dolhat by asking them to choose correct answers from options given, by working in groups, or by guiding them to the correct answer before they write it. Some teachers plan several substages to guided practice, beginning with whole group work where students are guided by the teacher to the correct answer. Next they move to small group work that is supported by the teacher's presence. Finally, students work alone on work sheets taken from books or created by members of the class. These worksheets should give guidance as to which answer to choose.

At the next session the teacher reviewed the rules the students had created. Then she asked students to work in pairs to invent example sentences, using information they knew about each other, to be used by the class for capitalization practice. The first sentence to go on the board was My best friend in class, marilyn, her kid, Sarah, makes her crazy." The teacher quickly made it into two sentences, to focus attention on capitalization rather than sentence structure, and teased the authors for making the rest of the class work on an extra sentence. Individually, the students worked at their seats to capitalize the sentences correctly. When they were finished, the teacher had them discuss what they did and why. Then the next sentence was put on the board. At the end of this session, several students seemed to be able to use capitalization with ease and others were still having difficulty distinguishing between proper nouns and the regular kind. The teacher assigned a strong capitalizer to each of three small groups of students still needing practice. Each group leader wrote example sentences using proper nouns and worked with the group to capitalize them correctly.

Fifth Step: Independent Practice
During this step the teacher sets it up for the student to practice with very little assistance. They work on work sheets that do not make the right answer obvious or they respond to questions orally. At this stage, students are gaining confidence in the new skill and the teacher is checking to see that the students are ready for the next step. If the students are not able to use the skill independently, the teacher needs to return to step three and find a way to re-teach the skill. The best place to start in re-teaching is to investigate. Ask the students what they think about the skill and how to use it. Their misconceptions are usually logical and based on previous learning. Knowing what they think will help you clean up errors. Often students who understand and can use a skill can be very good teachers for those who are still struggling.

The next step in the lesson on caps was to hand out photocopies of the original page of writing and for each student individually to proofread for capitalization, by first underlining the letters and then going back and examining each one. The teacher walked around the room looking for students who needed help.

Sixth step: Apply the new skill to the project
The students are in charge of the project and now is the time to carry it out. The task of the teacher is to back off and keep out of the way. You need to be available for support and consultation, but the students must exercise the new skill in a real situation independent of teacher guidance.

Of course that last step in the capitalization lesson was for the teacher to ask the students to proofread their own letters. She was available for assistance, but sat at her own place at the table working on the next activity.

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