Tuesday, May 22, 2018

TeachBack

I'm not a big fan of review activities before a unit test or final exam; I'm also not a big fan of unit tests or final exams. But that's not what this post is about...

The fact of the matter is, it is the expectation of my department/school that I give some type of summative, comprehensive final 'thing' at the end of the year. Someday, the final 'thing' I give will be an authentic, socially relevant project that allows students to show intelligence in different ways. For now, however, the final 'thing' is just a final exam. And my students expect some type of in-class review to help them prepare for the final exam.

My first several years' teaching, my review activities were pretty standard. For example, we did a lot of station review where I there are different stations set up around the room--each with a different concept. Students choose the concept they want to work on and go to that station. I didn't like the station structure because it felt passive: how do students decide where to go or what to work on? Are students reflecting on what they know/don't know? Or are they just working? Probably my biggest dislike of passive review is the message it sends to students: we spent time in class 'studying' therefore you are better prepared for the test. However, I feel like this message neglects to acknowledge that action (being in a room where studying is happening) isn't always synonymous with accomplishment (greater understanding of a concept).

TeachBack

A few years ago, I came up with a review structure that I felt like it addressed some of the issues I mentioned. I call the review structure TeachBack. I don't think it's a perfect structure, and it can be a lot of work to set up the right partners/groupings, but I think it is a step in the right direction.




The main idea for TeachBack is that I thoughtfully group students, give students the tools they need to be an effective peer coach and then watch as the room FILLS with amazing conversations and learning. Also, I can focus on the few students that really need intense intervention since all other students are diligently working with their peer coach.

What are the key ideas for TeachBack?
  1. Intentionality: I narrow down the review concepts so that we are only focusing on the essential concepts. There can be a lot of skills in a mathematics unit. My goal is to sift through all the skills to identify those skills that are most essential. In a linearity unit, this might mean focusing on the skills equation to graph, point and slope to equation, graph to equation, and identifying a linear function in a table or equation. In terms of being the most essential that is all subjective. The point is, rather than just reviewing everything from the unit, I am very intentional about WHAT skills I want students to work on.  
  2. Clarity: However I decide to tweak the structure, I am very, very clear to the students on what success looks like. This means I use sentence frames and word/phrase banks to model how I want students to talk to each other. I also do a fishbowl before the start of the activity. I usually sit with 1 or 2 students (depending on how I'm going to structure the activity), call everyone to gather around us, and the students and I model what the activity should look like. I also try to use positive praise in the first 10-ish minutes of the activity to shoutout groups that are demonstrating the body language and words I expect students to be using. 
  3.  Choice: Students can choose what skills to work on. And if they want to practice the same skills more than once, I try to have multiple versions of practice sets for each skill ready to go. 
  4. TeachBack Cycle: This is the 'TeachBack' part of the activity. The TeachBack process is three steps. First, the coach does an example problem for that skill. The coach needs to make their thinking visible by talking out loud while they do the problem. And the student(s) need to ask questions. Second, the coach and the student(s) do the problem together. Again, talking out loud, asking questions, and having discussions about mistakes or misconceptions. Third, the student does the problem on their own. The coach cannot answer questions at this point. The student is encouraged to try their best and the student and coach will discuss the work and any potential errors once the student is done with the problem. 

Over the years, I have modified this structure a lot. One thing I like about this structure is that it is easily modifiable. And I like that there are a million ways to modify this structure. To me, that 's one of the benefits. And, depending on the personality and/or needs of a certain class, I can easily tweak this structure to better meet the needs of those that class. Some modifications:
  • sometimes I offer an assessment at the beginning and end of the activity so students can think about what to work on and then see how they did
  • sometimes I do partners with no defined coach--the instructions are clear that partners take turns on coaching
  • sometimes I do triads with an assigned coach


Finally, I like this structure because it is about more than 'review'. Students are learning soft skills like how to reflect and how to coach. So I'm not just reviewing material that's already been learned, I'm also making space for students to develop higher-order skills.

an example of what a skill practice page looks like

the reflection that students/coaches complete after each skill

an example of a coaching phrase bank for this activity

Grouping Students

How I group students is key to this activity. No matter what modifications I make, how I group students is an important part of this activity. I am not an expert on grouping students. However, my basic philosophy is this:

When I group students, I think about what combination of students will best put the students in that group into their ZPD. For example, I would NOT partner the student most proficient in a skill with a student that is least proficient in that skill. Neither student will be in their ZPD. Rather, the most proficient student might be partners with a student that is doing well on foundations but is ready for a challenge. Similarly, I might partner the student that is least proficient with someone that has shown a lot of growth in the unit and is thus ready for the challenge of being a tutor. 

The other factor I consider when grouping students is their ZPD for coaching. Some students are not ready to be coaches and this has nothing to do with comfort in the content. They just aren't ready to be coaches (I image my college professor for Complex Analysis teaching my 9th-grade algebra class...he is an expert in content that is NOT ready to be a teacher for 9th grade). So I try to consider who is ready to coach and what students would make the most sense to put them in their ZPD for coaching. 

Finally, when grouping students I think about status. Classrooms are messy places where gender, race, socio-economic status, and other forms of status all intersect. Ideally, my groupings assign status or competency to the right students without reinforcing existing status that may or may not be healthy. For example, I don't make the male student that shouts out the answers first to be a tutor. That would be reinforcing the "male, fastest = smartest" status. I don't want to do that. (side note: if there are a lot of those types of students in a class, I tend to use the 'no assigned coach' model and make clear that students need to alternate coaching). 

Does TeachBack solve all my problems? No! Is it the easiest activity to facilitate/develop/implement? No! Is it worth it? To me, the answer is yes. The traditional review never felt satisfying. TeachBack addresses some of the things that made review feel unsatisfying to me while still honoring that my students want/need/expect some type of review to feel prepared for the final exam. And that feels like a step in the right direction. Also, I get to sneak in a lesson on soft skills--students learn how to talk to each other, coach, and work together. So a win-win! 

If you try it, let me know how it goes. I attached a pdf of the TeachBack for Linearity that I'm using this week. 

TeachBack Linearity PDF



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