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A nonreport is anything that does not fall into the category of straight written information. The task is to convince students accustomed to the way school is supposed to be that their teacher will accept and value their ideas. Their first question is usually, “What do you want?” since they know that pleasing the teacher is the quickest way to a good grade. Here is how a nonreport works:

1. Impress on students that a standard written report will receive no credit, since it does not meet the requirements of the assignment.

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2. Make the assignment worth enough points so that not doing it will result in a substantial drop in grade. At first, there is a great risk in do- ing something not completely spelled out, so the risk of losing credit must be greater.

3. Create a grading scale that gives equal merit to content and to cre- ativity (more loosely, to the effort the student has to make to person- alize the knowledge he or she conveys).

4. Keep the topic very general, giving the students ample opportunity to select from among a wide variety of ideas. For example, if you are studying a unit on measurement, allow them to select anything at all dealing with measurement. Point out to them that there are few oc- cupations (hobbies, sports, etc.) that do not contain measurement of some kind. Give them examples. Challenge them to name something that apparently has nothing to do with measurement—but be quick enough on your feet to find the measurement involved.

5. If they insist, and they may at first, give them a couple of examples of nonreport type formats (they are endless and limited only by imagina- tion). For example, they could create a game, write a song, role play a game show, do a slide or tape presentation, make a scrapbook, or build a model. But warn them that they will receive more credit for doing something you haven’t thought of than copying something you have. And stick by that statement!

6. Perhaps most important, don’t do this assignment unless you are willing to truly value the students’ ideas. If you can’t suspend your own idea of what is right or good and try to see the product from their point of view, they will never believe you again. But neither should you give credit for hastily conceived and executed junk. I once re- ceived a shoebox with a hole punched in one end that was labeled “Working model of a black hole.” Hah!

I have found that giving 10 points for the idea, 10 points for the execution, and 10 points for the content, plus 5 for effort, works out well—a total of 35 points. The effort points come in when a person has had three weeks to do a project that might be reasonably well done but obviously took only 15 minutes compared to someone else who spent several hours. You can tell by looking.

The first time you do this, you will probably receive the usual assortment of collages, collections, and posters copied from books. But when these

 

 

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students see the more adventurous, creative, and “fun” projects getting all the praise, they will be more willing to let go a little the next time.

By the end of the first year that I had students do these projects, I turned them loose on a topic we had not covered in class: solar energy. They re- searched the topic, did their Nonreports—including a working parabolic solar cooker and a miniature solar greenhouse complete with Trombe walls made of plastic soft drink bottles—and presented them to the class, thus covering almost all the important aspects of solar energy—with no effort on the part of the teacher. One of the most rewarding aspects of these assignments is that, frequently, the students who usually get C’s or D’s in regular assignments really come into their own on Nonreports.

Nonreports allow students to plan, research, and execute. It evokes their creative potential and forces interaction with the content. Many students sought “experts” to help them and learned the intricacies of carpentry, photography, sound and art—because they wanted to. And it is tremen- dously exciting to see projects come into the classroom that are far be- yond anything the teacher would have assigned or expected. (Mindsight, New Lenox, IL, 1989)

We would add specific criteria for success that make it clear to students exactly what the attributes of quality work in the nonreport will be. For example, in the nonreport on solar energy, the criteria could be: (1) explains three different ways of converting solar energy, (2) discusses costs and efficiencies of various forms of solar energy, and (3) uses data to compare the efficiency of solar, fossil fuel, and nuclear energy. Students using these criteria could create dozens of different kinds of products to represent their learning, from radio shows to models to hypercard assemblies. Ran- dolf and Evertson (1995) give a simple example of student choice that suggests how plentiful the opportunities are for giving them:

Ms. Cooper often delegated tasks that would typically be assigned [by her] to students. We have already described students as providing the text for writing class through Sharing Models/Generating Characteris- tics. In this activity, students also took on the task of controlling the floor, which would traditionally be a teacher task. Areas of student control in- clude deciding how to participate, getting the class’s attention and lead- ing the discussion by calling on peers. . . . Student readers usually stood in the front of the room, but Ms. Cooper gave students the option of read- ing from their desks. Students were given the same choice when they shared their rough drafts with the class. The fact that Ms. Cooper did not define this aspect of appropriate participation gave students choice in how to manage this aspect of controlling the floor. (p. 22)

 

 

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The ability of students to make choices and control the activity flow and the discourse within the group is partially responsible for the success of cooperative learning. In all cooperative learning models, students work in groups in which they control the dialogue, who speaks, when, and for how long.

5. Using Students and Their Communities as Sources of Knowledge

This aspect of Classroom Climate building is about ways to reach out and re- spect the experience and questions students bring to class.

Constructivist Teaching

Constructivist pedagogy brings student influence to the intellectual life of the classroom and may be the most advanced level of student ownership. It is also the most complex and requires the largest paradigm shift for teachers. Most of us, after all, were educated in schools where other people’s constructions of knowledge were handed to us for consumption and digestion. Brooks and Brooks (1993) provide five overarching principles of constructivist pedagogy:

1. Posing problems of emerging relevance to learners.

2. Structuring learning around “big ideas” or primary concepts.

3. Seeking and valuing students’ points of view.

4. Adapting curriculum to address students’ suppositions.

5. Assessing student learning in the context of teaching. (p. 33)

There is still a place in good education for “active reception learning,” as Aus- ubel (1963) calls it. But there is also a large place for carefully designed teaching that allows students to construct meaning for themselves. Randolf and Evertson (1995) in their analysis of interactive discourse in a writing class describe this kind of pedagogy:

The construction of knowledge, which takes place through negotiation, depends on the redistribution of power from teachers to students. The fact that knowledge is presumed to come from students defines students as knowledge holders, an identity usually retained by the teacher. (p. 24)

Constructivist teaching puts students in the legitimate role of knowledge gen- erators and knowledge editors, whether in science, social studies, language arts,

 

 

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or any other academic discipline (Brooks & Brooks, 1993). The examples in the Randolf and Evertson study describe a series of lessons on literary genre. They show how teachers’ conscious regulation of dialogue and interaction with students can make students genuinely empowered knowledge generators. For example, one teacher, Ms. Cooper, asked students to bring in examples of fables to share and discuss in class so they can extract the characteristics of fables by analyzing these examples. At one point, she asked the class to look for general- izations they could make about the morals of fables:

Teacher: “What can we say about the characteristics of morals? [Stu- dents offer some suggestions.] Maybe we need to explain what a lesson or moral is—how to be a better person. I’m going to put that up, unless you have objections.”

Laurie: “They’re trying to prevent you from making mistakes.” [Teacher writes, “Stories are used to help you become a better person and not make mistakes.”]

Tim: “I disagree. Sometimes some of the things are wrong.”

Hillary: “Can be” [used to help you]. [Teacher changes “are” to “can be” in the sentence on the board: “Stories can be used to help you become a better person and not make mistakes.”]

Onika: “But everybody makes mistakes.”

Teacher: “You’re right,” [Adds to the sentence on the board: “or learn from characters’ mistakes in the story.”] “but the purpose of the fable is to help you not to make so many mistakes.”

In analyzing this episode, Randolf and Evertson (1995) comment:

The discussion begins with Ms. Cooper’s question. The answers she re- ceives do not give her the information she wants, so Ms. Cooper supplies her own answer: a moral teaches how to be a better person. In stating her answer, Ms. Cooper clarifies her question: she is asking about the purpose of a moral. With this new information, Laurie is able to supply a response that Ms. Cooper validates by incorporating it into the character- istic she is writing on the chalkboard. So far Ms. Cooper is in the position of authority in the classroom: she initiates the topic, students respond with possible answers, and she evaluates them, rejecting all responses until she hears one that fits her expectations.

 

 

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The nature of the interaction changes, however, as Tim questions the characteristic that is the joint construction of Ms. Cooper and Laurie. In effect, Tim takes on the role of evaluator of the response, moving Ms. Cooper into the role of co-collaborator with Laurie. Ms. Cooper’s response is thus demonstrated to be as open to evaluation as any other partici- pant’s response.

Onika and Susan then join the deliberation, questioning the need for mor- als as they have defined them in class more than they are questioning the definition itself. Why, they argue, should morals try to keep you from making mistakes, when you’re going to make them anyway, and they help you learn? These contributions are initiations of a new topic, which Ms. Cooper responds to and evaluates by treating them as negotiations of meaning, signaling her acceptance by incorporating the new contribution into the statement on the board. Thus the characteristic as it is finally stated is the joint construction of Ms. Cooper, Laurie, Tim, Hillary, Onika, and Susan. (pp. 23–24)

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