Friday, May 8, 2015

Data, Take the Wheel

On a brisk January day back in 2013, I assigned my Freshmen World History classes a DBQ (Document Based Questions) on the Crusades.

It was essentially random--aside from a few lectures, I had done little to prepare them to analyze a series of historical documents connected to the Crusades, let alone put together an essay synthesizing information from the documents.

And here I was, asking my students to both analyze the documents and complete the essay in 50 minutes.  Was I crazy?

The truth was, I was phobic about teaching DBQs, having never actually written a DBQ myself until college.  I was throwing my students in the deep end, and in the process, worsening their own fear of writing DBQs.

Understandably, the students panicked.  They were polite enough, but even the best writers in the class were beset with anxiety and begged me to call off the assignment.

Now, I'm not proud of this, but I did call off the assignment.  I neglected to seize what would have been a brilliant teachable moment and guide the kids through the process of writing the DBQ.  I took the coward's way out, and I never assigned another DBQ in my World History class.

Fortunately, this incident (among many others that year) provided a wake-up call to me that I was in a professional rut and needed to learn more about how to teach and assess effectively.  It was only a couple months later that I began my Master's program.  

Now, fast-forward ahead two years.

Those same students returned to my classroom as 11th graders, half of them in my Humanities class.  When I announced our first DBQ of the year back in October, I saw all-too-familiar looks of panic wash over the students' faces.  
"Don't worry," I assured them, "We're going to really break the process down and walk through it together."
And we sure did.  We took nearly one week of class time (two class periods each day) to look through the documents, which revolved around the creation of the U.S. Constitution, to write (and revise) thesis statements, to outline, and then to actually write the essay.

I should note that DBQs are typically done in a single class period, but in thinking about the purpose of a DBQ, I decided that the time limit was the absolute least important element--secondary by far to the skills of analysis and synthesis.  If enforcing a time limit would prevent students from developing and demonstrating these other skills, then the time limit ought to be done away with.  So, instead of a single 50-minute class period, we spent an entire week working on this.

While some students performed better than they expected, many did struggle, having gone so long without writing a full DBQ. 
I told the students that I blamed their 9th grade World History teacher for any struggle they had.  
It took the students a moment to realize that I was not trying to shift the blame.
I encouraged the students not to worry, that they would have two more DBQs in 11th grade, and that I would do everything I could to help them improve.

To make good on my word, I looked at the rubric data.  The class average for the first DBQ had been 77%.  The data told me that the main areas of struggle--the areas that a majority of students had scored low on--had been a lack of organization, and a shortage of background information (from lectures or readings) used in their support.  

So, these things became focuses for our next DBQ in January.  This DBQ asked students to evaluate the causes of the Civil War.  This time, I made a point of having the students write a thesis and list potential background information that they could use to support each point before they started writing the DBQ itself.  I stressed the importance of organizing their essay according to reasons and ideas rather than by documents and made sure each student was on the same page.  

Again, I reviewed the data after we had finished.  The class average had gone up to 84%--most students who had struggled the first time had found their stride.  This time, there were no scores that were especially low across the board--students were still mid-range on use of background information, but the scores for organization were above average.  There were still just a few students who had continued to struggle.

We completed our final DBQ in April, this final DBQ asking whether or not the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a military and political necessity.  We only used one full class-day to work on this DBQ.  I had a long conversation with a student who had not written a clear thesis on the previous DBQ and in checking back with him later, found he had written his first clear thesis of the year and was following it as he wrote his essay!  This time, no students were anxious or panicking--the students knew what they needed to do, and they got to work quietly and diligently.

The class average for the final set was 87%.  Nobody had failed, and most had done quite well.  

I know full well that numbers cannot tell me everything, but the story they told in this case was one of encouragement; one of fears and anxieties being overcome, for both the students and for myself.  

The lessons I've learned are perhaps obvious, but crucial nonetheless:
1) Fear is contagious--if I'm uncomfortable with something I am teaching, there's a high likelihood that this discomfort will be passed on to some of my students.
2) Teachers must be willing and enthusiastic learners--this is the only way we will bolster our areas of weakness.
3) If I'm going to assess on something, I better have taught it.
4) The teacher should be clear in his own mind on the purpose of an assessment and cut away anything which might disrupt that purpose. 
5) Data can help me to refine and focus my instruction more effectively.

I'm excited to continue to learn, to grow and to more intentionally use data to enhance my teaching in the coming year!

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