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Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Book, Pencil, Understanding

"The type of writing a student uses can affect comprehension gains."

(This blog entry is something I'm doing to prepare for a workshop I'm giving on Friday, so if you're not into education strategies, you might skip this one.)

I'd first like to acknowledge the source of much of the material I'm about to examine. The source is not in MLA format.

"Learning the Write Way: The Writing-to-Learn Approach Can Be Used Across Disciplines to Foster Critical Thinking Skills." Deidra M. Gammil, The Reading Teacher 59.8 (May 2006): p 754(9).

The introduction to Gammill's essay invites readers to consider the connection between reading, writing, and understanding --- thus, the three elements I've listed in my title above. You'll notice that my book is open and blank. It might as well be blank if I can't understand what I'm reading or if I can't retain the information it contains. We're going to look at an example section of a great book by Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope, and do a reading exercise. So if everyone will turn to the section of your workbook called "Obama", let's give it a shot. First, put away all pencils and paper and just read the couple of paragraphs of the material.

What do you remember?

Now, let's try it again. This time, as you read, take notes on a separate piece of paper. Just phrases that stick out or ideas you'd like to remember, or direct quotes.

Put your paper away and tell your neighbor what you remember about the passage now.

Okay, third time around, we're really reading for understanding. When you write this time, use active verbs that describe the passage you've just read. Example, "Here Obama challenges misconceptions about politicians" (by ..., including ...) or "Here Obama reveals personal anxiety about the political climate (with images of ..., when he writes...).

Finally, do you now find it easier to summarize what you've read and to understand it, and possibly communicate it to someone else? Well, that last part is good, but let's first focus on the first two parts.

According to Gammill, "Writing to learn is different than writing to communicate" because writing to communicate means that we focus on conveying, instructing, or swaying --- rather than shaping, ordering, and representing our own experiences.

Let's look at the difference, using an example from Algebra.

"A set is a collection of objects, which are called the elements of the set. The roster method of writing a set encloses a list of the elements in braces.

The set of the last three letters of the alphabet is written (x, y, z).

The set of the positive integers less than 5 is written (1,2,3,4).

How to use the roster method to write the set of integers between 0 and 10.

A= (1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9)

A set can be designated by a capital letter. Note that 0 and 10 are not elements of set A."

Now, let's say I want to write about this passage in order to learn. What do I have to do? Shape, order, and represent my understanding of the passage. I'll try it:

This passage teaches me definitions of terms related to writing sets and provides examples of how to write them. So I can see the shape of the passage:

definition>examples>how to. The concepts are presented in this order because the definitions are most important? Or are we moving from least important to most important? Well, there are only a couple of definitions but there are several examples, so maybe I need to focus most of my efforts to understand on the examples. Should I memorize the examples? Is there an activity associated with this passage. If so, I guess I should do it so that I understand very clearly what a set it, what the roster method is, and how to practice at least this method. Eventually, my sets will look more like this one:

--- what I'm getting now are simple examples.

The writing I just did, which was fairly brief, demonstrates Gimmell's point that "the writing process is very similiar to the speaking, thinking, and learning processes," if we let it be. "This type of learning creates a personal transaction through which the student takes ownership of learning and buildings meaning" (1). It's like sending a text message to your own brain.

As Gimmell points out, "the physical act of writing plays a large part in the development of metacognitive skills."


"As students become comfortable with writing-to-learn processes, teachers can gently prompt them to produce just a little more, to expand an idea or follow a line of questioning to its logical conclusion." One way to achieve this is through the KWL chart, which represents "what students know, what they want to know, and what they learn."

You have a KWL chart in your workbook. Take a look at it and then let's try it. Looking at page 140 in the textbook, Hole's Essentials of Human Anatomy and Physiology. We can look quickly at the headings (Support and Movement, Facial Skeleton, and Infantile Skull), and then write what we know about these subjects at this point. We may not think we know anything, but let's try it.

I know that joints and bones and muscles and circulation are important in the support and movement of the human body. I also know that these elements are important in shaping the face and in communicating our emotions and ideas. I know that the infant skull is fragile, that is not completely enclosed for several months or even years, and that there is a reason for this, but I don't know what it is. So there is something to go on my want to know chart. Let me take a look at that section and see if I can find the answer. Oh, yeah --- I remember that word now: fontanels (soft spots). And there's my answer. The skull of an infant has to be flexible as it passes through the birth canal. I can move that to the what I've learned section. But there is so much more. How long does it take for the fontanels to close? (want to know) --- why doesn't it tell me? How can I find out? Does it matter in relation to what I'm learning?

"The average time for the anterior fontanel to close is 18 months, but the timing varies widely. As early as 9 to 12 months is considered normal." I found this by quickly searching on Google with the prompt "When do the fontanels close?" I found this website and spotted the answer.


This is an example of how my writing led me to ask an additional question and get an additional answer ---- in other words, to expand my learning.

"Learning logs can also help students refine their understanding by connecting with prior knowledge and experiences." Let's look at the topic of evolution as an example, drawing from Biology: Concepts and Connections. Using the KWL chart, or just writing a parapraph based on its principles, I am going to freewrite my way through this:

I know little about evolution except for what I've read about Darwin's experiments and theories --- survival of the fittest, etc. I recall something about how birds descended from dinosaurs and people descended from apes (an insult to the apes, according to Mark Twain). I know that certain species have adapted to changing environments, though I don't immediately recall what they were. I read today that human breast milk in the developed West is not as beneficial to infants as the breast milk of "ancient" times was. Is this evolution in reverse? Another important association I have with evolution is the Scopes trial and the movie version. Another is the evolution vs. creation controversy and the attempts to reconcile the two. So what do I want to know? Well, I want to know the answer to the question posed at the top of 15.8 of our textbook, "Is the temp of evolution steady or jumpy?" So let's see how the book goes about answering this question.

In the first paragraph of 15.8, the author suggests that "we might conclude that evolution can occur either in jumpy spurts or at a slower and steadier tempo." It depends on whether the species evolve by polyploidy, or by geographical isolation. Now I can pretty much figure out what that last term means, but I'll need a good definition of polyploidy.

Here's a website I found that offers a reasonable definition:


(I quit writing here on Tuesday, and now it's Wednesday, and I have pretty much forgotten what that website definition for polyploidy was. Let's see, it was something about two chromosomes sticking together, wasn't it? I've got to look at it again, but first let me tell you where my mind is going. (This is part of that "What I Know" question). I'm remembering a baby that I lost in 1995 because of a freak occurrence --- trisomy 21, Downs Syndrome. My husband and I saw a geneticist, Dr. Virginia Proud (great name, huh?) and she told us there was nothing genetically wrong; it was just that sometimes the 21st chromosome is sticky. Is this something like that polyploidy? I've got to take another detour and look up that syndrome.


I quickly scanned this article, and although my understanding of trisomy is somewhat improved, I still can't tell if this is related to polyploidy. Let me try again.


Um, I've scanned that second article twice, and now I don't think the two events are related, but I still don't really understand much. It's at this point that I realize I need to talk to someone who knows more about this --- probably another teacher on campus. I think of calling Mary Pittman. In the meantime, though, it's probably time to get back to my original objectives for studying. I haven't gotten past the first paragraph of section 15.8.

The first term in bold is gradualist model, so I note that and read the rest of paragraph three (I've scanned two) with the idea that the paragraph will focus on that model. When I finish, I recall that the writer referred to Darwin's views and used butterflies as an example of gradual evolution. Changes occurred in the original butterfly species as a result of movement to different local environments and the necessary adaptations that were required to survive. This happened "over long spans of time." (I'm wondering how long.)


I quickly locate this forum and wonder if it might be useful to me as I study. I need to ask Mary Pittman if she knows about it and what she thinks. I notice that one of the students writes, "My English is not that good, so I hope my questions don't confuse you." It's interesting because it reveals how hard it can be to even ask a question when you feel inferior in some way.

Ah ha. The next paragraph gives me the bottom line: the gradualist model depends on little changes resulting in big changes (microevolution, "changes to allele frequencies in gene pools can lead to the divergence of species.") So I make a little chart to show myself the order of events.

butterflies>move to different location>face different obstacles>develop small changes in alleles>eventually develop into a new species

Is that right --- a new species, or a new variety of species? Do I even really understand what "species" means? Oh, boy. Here we are at the "W" stage again --- what I want to know.


Well, that doesn't help. I need to ask Mary. (Hopefully this is what a student will be thinking: "I need to ask my instructor --- and could be encouraged to post this question on the CC message board, chat forum, or by e-mail).

Anyway, it appears from further reading of 15.8 that fossil records do not always seem to support the idea of gradual evolution. In fact, "few sequences of fossils have ever been found that represent gradual transitions of species." It is more likely, explains the author, that the periods in which the species went relatively unchanged were much much longer than those in which they changed. Thus, it's time to examine a non-gradualist model: punctuated equilibrium, in terms of the butterfly species we considered earlier. In this case, it appears that the changes in the butterflies happened in spurts rather than gradually over time. These spurts indicate a significant change in the gene pool to butterflies who drift from the parental environment (in a few hundred or a few thousand generations --- " a short period in geological time.")

The next examples of evolution offered by this section of the text are related to landscape and water. (Death Valley region of California and Nevada, wet climate 50,000 years ago>drying trend, 10,000 years ago> resulting 4000 years ago in desert). Lakes,rivers>isolated springs>deep clefts between rocky walls. Some of these springs house different species of pupfish (a desert-pool fish) that don't exist anywhere else in the world but apparently evolved from "a single ancestral species whose range was broken up when the region became arid").

Saratoga Springs, Death Valley --- one of the places that features the pupfish.

(species of Cyprinodon). "Each adapted to its home spring."

All of a sudden, the text jumps back to the question of whether "thousands of years" can be called "abrupt," and refers to the fact that "fossil record suggests that successful species last for a few million years, on average." (This makes me wonder about how long human beings will last.)

Then, in the next paragraph, we find a reasonable argument from the gradualists about why fossil record does not appear to support their model: fossils can only indicate external factors of extinct species, and "Changes in internal anatomy, body functions, and behavior would go undetected." An excellent point, to me. I have this feeling that I just understood something very important about evolution --- that much of it may be internal and therefore may be difficult to detect.

I've spent a good bit of time on these two pages in the biology textbook, but it was worth it because of the strong impressions I've developed. This is writing to learn.

As Kimerly J. Wilcox and Murray S. Jensen (University of Minnesota), authors of "Writing to Learn in Anatomy and Physiology" point out, recognizing the benefits of writing to learn in science may depend more on subjective data rather than objective data. The entire study is available in your workbooks. Basically, the instructors assigned short and long papers intended to help students learn the course material. When both of these instructors used short papers in their classes as learning assignments,nearly 90% of their students reported at the end of the semester that these assignments had been "Helpful," "Very Helpful," or "Extremely Helpful" in learning the material. In fact, only one student found that the papers were not helpful. For the instructor, the short papers revealed student misconceptions and allowed time for clearing these up prior to exams.

See the "Examples of Several Writing Prompts" beginning on the next-to-last page of the article. What do you think of these assignments?

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