Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

Productive Struggle in My Classroom

By Jodi Alligood, American Federation of Teachers member and middle school science teacher and AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) coordinator at New Smyrna Beach Middle School in Volusia County, FL

Productive struggle. These are the two words that come to mind when thinking of my experiences with the Common Core in my classroom. And I am not just thinking of the students. If you are anything like me, your desks are straightened between periods, your stapler and tape dispenser have a home (and they are lined -up) and your students know that you don’t “do chaos.”  So, for me learning to let go of the reins and embrace the organized chaos that accompanies inquiry-based and problem-solving type learning was a struggle. Seeing what happened when I let the students inquire, speak to each other and bounce ideas around, and “steal” from other groups, I realized that my productive struggle had been worth it.

As far as the students go, their version of productive struggle was much different than mine. After all, if being social and chaotic was the goal for middle schoolers, my job would be much easier.  The students’ struggle came from the assignment of rigorous tasks and complex readings; and in understanding how to transfer what they learned in a given lesson to other tasks and even assessments. I can remember spending almost a full period on one short paragraph while reading about endothermic and exothermic reactions in science class. We spent time highlighting, underlining, making connections to things we already knew, asking questions in the margins, defining words and more. The room might as well have smelled of smoke— these kids were thinking, brains-on-fire style! They were struggling…PRODUCTIVELY! I was hooked, and unbelievably, so were they. I heard several kids exclaim, “Ohhhhhhh, I get it.”

Another science lesson that stands out was when I was teaching about tides and how they are a result of the pull of gravity by the sun and the moon. I first gave my students an informational passage and asked them to make connections to prior knowledge, define terms, ask questions, highlight key ideas and basically dig beyond the surface of the text. Next, I asked the students to get in small groups and share what they had done, building on each other’s insights and connections.  We had a short class discussion giving the students one more opportunity to share their take-aways, connections and questions about the piece. It also gave me the chance to ask them about connections they hadn’t raised.

Finally, I gave my students data representing the average high and low tides for a coastal city in the United States. The students had to graph the real-life data then use the information from the text to interpret the graph. Answering questions like: “On what range of days were there neap tides in this month?” students used conceptual vocabulary defined in the text and cited evidence from the text and the graph to demonstrate how they knew they were correct. This whole lesson made my students struggle, but they ultimately felt really excited when they were able to graph real-life data and figure out which type of tides happened at a certain time of the month. I made sure to read a few responses out loud to the class and give major accolades, saying things like, “Now this is how you write like a scientist!” They feel so accomplished and rightfully proud when they can see that the work they produced sounds and looks academically amazing.

The struggle doesn’t end with a successful lesson though. Later, when giving the Open Boat Mini-Assessment I realized that there was a real disconnect between what I was teaching them and how they were using the skills on their own. When taking the assessment the students were marking the text, but their answers showed they still didn’t comprehend what they were reading at a deeper level. After giving the assessment to the students individually, we went back over it as a class. I showed them that summarizing in the margins is great, but that they needed to take it a step further and use their notes to their advantage when answering questions. I demonstrated how helpful it can be to write questions about what you are reading. Working together, we walked though how to make connections between concepts in the passage, as well as to personal experiences, and how to comment on a character’s attitude or demeanor.

When asked to compare this assessment to previous assessments, my students pointed out that with past assessments they usually could read a text and answer the questions without referring back to the text; however, with this type of assessment, they had to work, flipping back-and-forth searching for evidence and justification for their answers. They realized why I’d been asking them to write notes in the margins all that time!

Before trying this style of teaching, had someone told me, ‘you have to spend a whole period on one paragraph,’ I would have laughed or consulted a fellow teacher to confirm how ridiculous that strategy sounded. Now, my colleagues and I have conversations that sound more like competitions as to who made their students productively struggle the most! Watching our students dig deeper, sweat a little, and then sigh that breath of relief at the end is so rewarding.

As a teacher, there is nothing more frustrating and, dare I say, defeating than reading about or watching lessons that seem to be perfect but somehow out of reach for your class. I have heard it and even thought it many times, “This person doesn’t have the type of kids I have,” or “My students would go crazy if I let them work in groups.” Ground work has to be laid, expectations set and most importantly, I have to be a present facilitator to the lesson. If you tell your students the directions, pass out the paper and hunker down behind your computer, then yes, it will be crazy and unproductive. If you struggle alongside them, your students will see that they will get better at the work and that their successes will be all the more sweet for being hard-won. Please notice the phrase “get better.” Trust me there are still times when I have to intervene to say, “Really, please explain how Johnny text messaging Susan is related to chemical reactions?” It is not perfect and I don’t know that it will be, but it can definitely be a productive and even addicting style of teaching and learning.

This post originally appeared on the AFT's Voices from the Classroom blog.

Public domain image by Sarah Klockarsclauser, via publicdomainpictures.net