This is fourth in my series on ALARM. If you have watched Max Woods’ videos you would realise that I am approaching this in a different order. While I love the way Max approaches this as an introduction to ALARM, I have been presenting ALARM subject specific workshops over the past 2 years and this is the order I use for teachers who have already engaged with the introduction (watch the videos people).
I like to teach before I get students to respond and so I like to talk about how to teach using ALARM before I talk about how to respond using ALARM. This is also because I see it as a useful tool beyond the HSC. It is not just about getting a band 6. It is about teaching students to think. Consequently, I leave all that extended response stuff until the end.
One of the first complaints about any new teaching strategy is often, “Great, something else I have to do. How am I meant to fit this in?” When it comes to ALARM, the answer is you don’t. Initially, you can tweak what you already do and incorporate ALARM easily into it. One of the misconceptions I encountered just recently is that ALARM is a revision or summary strategy. It can be, but it is so much more if used in the teaching of content.
I found it easiest to introduce ALARM in my classroom (and to myself) through the use of colour. Max has a colour for each of the the ALARM verbs. I have adopted a 5 colour system. There is for no reason for this other than highlighters come in packs of 5. As a science teacher I tend to go in rainbow order (yellow, green orange, pink, purple). So my grouping is as follows:
- orange= name and define
- orange = describe
- yellow = explain
- green = analyse & critically analyse
- purple = evaluate & critically evaluate
- pink = conceptualise & appreciate
Every teacher knows students love to highlight. Give students some text and out comes the highlighters. Students exhibit a range of skills, some highlight everything, others go for key words, some change colours but very few have a systematic approach to their highlighting. There is a whole bunch of brain research to suggest that having multiple pathways to access information leads to improved success at remembering and recalling and colour is one of many ways to chunk, sort, remember and retrieve information.
One of the first steps to using ALARM in my classroom was to get students to use the colour system to highlight any text they were reading. Every time they read something they were highlighting using the ALARM hierarchy. At first I modelled and scaffolded this heavily. I used the highlighting tool in Word with a data projector and later using the same tool in OneNote using an interactive whiteboard (IWB). This was so all of us could get a better understanding of what each term meant (I love learning with my students). It was much easier to identify each of the ALARM verbs in text that was already created than it was to create understanding of them from a blank matrix.
My students picked this up quickly and began to ask for the highlighters (I purchased a class set) if I had forgotten them. Then next step was to get students to independently highlight sections of text then model their analyse of the text on the IWB. All of these activities helped model what good writing looked like and my students also began to identify poorly written texts. My favourite comment from a student: “No wonder this section is so confusing to read, they have jumped straight from a definition to an analyse but have not explained anything.”
This process made it much easier to develop a matrix. It also made it much easier for students to know where to write the information in the matrix. It gave them a simple and structured, explicitly taught approach to summarise information. I will admit that I had always assumed that my senior students knew how to do this. One of my most damaging of assumptions.
Once students started to write responses (which I’ll write about later), I also got them to use the highlighters on their own writing. This ability to self-evaluate is very powerful. This is one of the keys to getting students to think for themselves and create better responses. Being explicitly shown how to evaluate the structure of their writing became a powerful tool to improving their ability to think and respond. It also made remarkable changes to their confidence and belief in themselves.
Small changes, big impacts.