2-for-1 learning

In a previous post I wrote about how visuals improve learning. The theory of multiple intelligences tells us that some of us learn better using differing methods: verbally, hands-on doing, seeing, and so forth. We all learn by repetition, so incorporating more than one modality into a lesson is guaranteed to improve learning. When we include an exercise where students search for visuals to accompany their word definitions, even for words that aren’t things, they get a 2-for-1 learning experience, increasing the chances that they will succeed on a vocabulary test.

In that post I wrote that every single student got 100%, truly a learning experience for me.

The vocabulary words in that assignment came from a magical short story by Ray Bradbury, April Witch. The words were ermine, musky, black kite, crocus, praying mantis, amoeba, rig, wild mustard.

My tenth graders worked in the computer lab, so I was able to immediately see what they were or were not understanding. First, I informally asked them if they already knew the words. Not a single student knew what a crocus was. Or ermine. Or wild mustard. Not even a guess. They thought they knew what a black kite was, and a rig, but they were wrong, even though their guesses about those two terms had nothing to do with the context of the story.

And that’s the point; they were not comprehending what they were reading. It’s not that knowing what a crocus is will change their lives in any meaningful way. It’s that they cannot build upon what they don’t comprehend. When neurons are not connecting, no learning takes place.

They were instructed to look up definitions for the words as well as images (we used Wicktionary and Google images), in any order they wished. Sometimes, the word definition helped, as with the word musky. When they learned that it was ‘the smell of musk,’ they looked up ‘musk’ and found perfumes and soaps to help them associate the definition.

The word ‘kite’ proved a particular challenge. The story mentions a black kite flying at night. They were content to imagine a kite the color of black being flown by someone after dark. When I pointed out the incongruence of that image, they came up with the idea to look up a ‘black kite,’ resulting in this image:

The word ‘rig’ was my favorite for its teaching moment. They were coming up with images like this:

Or, this:

There was absolutely no mention of anything having to do with oil or trucks in the story. One of the sentences using the word read: “A tall man rode up in a rig, holding the reins high with his monstrous arms . . . “. I let them flounder about for a bit, allowing the tension for comprehension to build. Finally, one student entered into the image search box: horse rig, coming up with this:

And, we were off and running!

Be forewarned: As we all know, when our students access the internet they access the world, and some of it is unseemly. Have your administrator set the Google images at ‘strict filtering.’

More about lesson plans and reading:

tale of two learning theories

taking the tough route

book ’em


context and comprehension

All literature is contextual. While our students might follow the plot of a tale such as Beowulf, the story will really only come alive for them when they understand the culture of the Anglo-Saxons. This is true regarding all stories and their cultural context, but especially true for very old cultures from which we only have meager clues as to how people actually lived. Often, the clues come primarily from the stories themselves, so we can set our students to the task of being detectives, employing reading comprehension.

Attaining relevance is really just adding to previous knowledge, and, more importantly, chipping away at existing misperceptions. Here is an exercise that will help with both.

An Anglo-Saxon village has just learned that their king and his battle-weary men are soon returning from a conquest, after a long absence. In two pages, describe the details of the reunion, such as setting, characters, and the ceremony itself. What is the significance of the ceremony to the village? In such a harsh environment, what were the benefits of being well-spoken or artistic? Back up all statements with line numbers from the poem.

No matter what you’ve tried to articulate about the Anglo-Saxons, students retain a mental picture of gruff, axe-wielding barbarians, so it is critical that students find the clues by carefully parsing the text. Beowulf‘s poet would not recognize their mental construct!

Since the poem is difficult even in translation, it helps to have visuals, as well as background information, and this is where the web becomes a welcome ally. Provide specific sources, such as these, so that they don’t become overwhelmed with the varying levels of research available.

This type of assignment works well with groups or pairs. Have students open a new Google Doc, giving each member permission to edit, as well as you, the teacher. Have them send you a link to each group’s papers. Set a timeline for the project and check their progress regularly, leaving comments on their drafts. Tip: If each person in a group composes in a different color, you will see at a glance who is doing what.

Utilize the tools of our culture to explore another.

taking the tough route

Wired has a facile article today about the reasons it “sucks” to be an engineering student. One of the reasons is the reality of grade inflation: it’s harder to maintain a high gpa with mathematics, chemistry, and physics courses than it is with the typical liberal arts or English department education. Students from the differing disciplines receive the same level of bachelor’s degree, but there is little comparison in the effort of achievement. This does not have to be so.

I learned this lesson in a year-long experience teaching high school English. Students who had transferred out of honors classes to take “college prep” classes in their senior year–counting on an easier time–had much the same curriculum they had taken in honors, including the same readings. What I found is that they had never actually “read” the books in honors. Each work was covered briefly. Students skimmed, read the cliff notes, listened to what the teacher told them the works were about, and received high grades despite their lack of comprehension. They were tested on what reviewers said the work was about, not on the words and ideas themselves. I learned that understanding text is not the same as comprehending.

When I instituted lessons to insure comprehension, there was much grumbling, particularly from the former honor students. I even had an honors teacher tell me it was counter-productive to spend so much time on Macbeth, that students would become bored if I actually expected them to read the whole thing and attempt to understand it. Other teachers were also of the same opinion that reading comprehension efforts in the classroom were counter-productive due to time constraints. They may be right, but so what? What else should text-based courses in k-12 through university-level be teaching?

If we expect the liberal arts to live up to its claim as worthy of a university degree, comparable to the sciences, then we have to adhere to the rigorousness that comprehension requires.

The Wired article’s most interesting points come in the comments. A few responders state that, for them, understanding math is much easier than reading and writing an essay on Shakespeare’s plays. Comprehension of and writing about ideas can be just as difficult as any math problem or abstract physics problem. If only teaching methods and grading reflected that reality.


Slashdot features the Wired article above, with running content from the mathematically-minded community in the comments section, which is so very interesting. I like what this reader had to say:

In my experience, engineering school isn’t geared specifically for content. It’s designed to teach you some basics (electronics, math, logic, assembly language in my case), and everything done above and beyond that was designed to teach you how to solve problems

This is exactly how text-based courses should be taught. Rigorous training in comprehension teaches us how to solve problems, not only how to appreciate content: function as well as aesthetics.