Lauren Clark’s Timberstone seventh graders seem to like their own jokes. They set up for class with smiles on their faces and laughs in their voices. Mostly, those laughs come from their own punchlines, usually incomprehensible to anyone else. It’s a junior high personality that is as delightful as it is quirky, and Lauren matches it with her own jokes and smiles. After the trading of fun energy, though, it’s time for work. Lauren directs all attention to the Google Slides presentation on the board, which announces the agenda for the day: “Hooks in Argument Writing.”
Lauren’s students are developing argument compositions based on Scholastic Scope material she has collected over years. The source articles present pro and con positions on some interesting topics: Should we live forever? Should we ban competitive eating? Is being bored good for us? Should we deport Justin Bieber? Before today, students chose their topics, read the articles, and began topic development worksheets for the composition. Lauren’s process to this point has demonstrated traditional approaches. Her students read photocopied materials and hand wrote responses to the worksheet. That traditional approach, however, is about to feel a boost that will push it into a perfect blend of traditional and digital.
Class begins with a Google Slides presentation that students can watch on the SMARTBoard and access on their Chromebooks simultaneously. The presentation organizes their materials and presents notes on concepts. It even offers an enticing video on the difference between topic sentences and thesis statements, produced by Shmoop. While students handwrite on their development worksheets, they glance at the Chromebook screens. This blending clearly marks ownership. The screen is Lauren; the paper is them.
But, the digital activity of these seventh graders jumps as the class continues. To carry the students through the concepts required to compose an argument, Lauren has designed her own “Argumentation Writing Guide,” where the real transformation of the class is located. The guide is a deceptively simple Google sheet. In reality, though, it is an entire course in itself. On the grid, each row lists a different writing concept connected to writing arguments, everything from argument language and strong evidence to proper MLA citation. On the same row, next to each concept, Lauren has linked Internet resources for independent student learning. So, if a student is struggling with how to write strong topic sentences, she can go to row 13 and click on any of the three supporting resources: two text resources and one interactive resource. If another student was struggling with plagiarism, he could find help in any of four resources, including text, video, and interactive lessons. Lauren’s AWG collects online resources from a variety of sources to appeal to a variety of different learning styles and ability levels. With it, students can customize their learning. Today’s lesson introduces the guide to ground the students in this independent approach to writing.
Traditionally, students learned concepts by listening to teacher lecture or reading a textbook. Application helped reinforce, but the one-dimensional approach of lecture/textbook meant that students would be limited to repeated teaching approaches and a small range of resources. They would also be forced to endure long lectures on concepts that they may grasp quickly, or miss extended discussions on concepts everyone else got when they did not. These are the typical problems with a “One size fits all” approach. Lauren’s AWG offers an opportunity for students to learn and reinforce the concepts they need to study in the format that works for them. Really, it’s an elegant and powerful resource that can transform a limited, teacher-centered environment into a multi-faceted, student-centered one. And even better, any teacher could adapt it to any skills-based or standards-based environment, regardless of content area.
Lauren’s class continues as she moves past the introduction of the AWG and into “Hooks,” techniques for generating interest in the opening of an argument. It’s listed on line 24 of the AWG. (When she refers to a hook as a device, one of her seventh grade jokesters complains that “My device has lost power.” He laughs. Lauren stares back with a furrowed brow.) Since the hook is a new concept, Lauren will require all students to learn it, saving differentiated instruction for later. Right now, students watch videos and complete Google Forms-based quizzes to check understanding. The flow of the class begins to shift as students work at their own pace, accessing resources as they wish. While they do so, Lauren never sits still. She floats around the room, answering individual student questions and providing direction as students work. The class time flies.
The success of blended learning here is evident, but that success spreads beyond this one moment. Truly, to grasp the impact of Lauren’s approach one would need to watch the development over time. These seventh graders are moving into a learning environment where they will work at their own pace, reflect on areas of strength and weakness, and collaborate for learning. They will own their work. It’s all because Lauren developed her Argumentation Writing Guide, a foundation of resources and technique that created an environment for independent student learning. Moving from the textbook to the AWG has meant moving from limitations to possibilities.