This month’s Teaching Children Mathematics features an excellent article entitled “Learning From the Unknown Student.” What’s that about? The idea is to expose students to effective strategies and prompt analysis of others’ mathematical reasoning by using “anonymous scholar” work. The unknown student provides an avenue for sharing an alternate problem- solving approach without leading students to believe it’s the Teacher Way of doing math. I typically employ a variation of this strategy in writing and social skills, but it is equally effective in math.
Let’s say I want a student to recognize a common error in her writing, perhaps an abundance of incomplete sentences. But this kiddo does not see those mistakes and is already hyper-sensitive about correction. That’s when I introduce “a student from last year” whose writing is replete with the same errors. Now my student becomes a helpful editor and delights in using effective strategies to catch those errors, such as reading the sample out loud and using a rubric or checklist. I have found that students are much more relaxed about revisions and editing when they have sliced-and-diced someone else’s work. Where do I find these student samples? Some are actually students from last year. Others are copied from Google images or a search such as “writing samples, grade 2.”
For those students who struggle to add a specific feature to their writing, such as an effective opening sentence, I will use commercially-prepared mentor texts (Empowering Writers is a good choice) and graphic organizers with built-in prompts (usually created by me). There’s no point in replicating my students’ dismal classroom experiences, where other kids seem to write effortlessly. Those scholars are not anonymous.
In social skills instruction, I tell anecdotes or write social stories about anonymous scholars who struggle to make friends or follow directions. I have also referred to “a student at another school, but I can’t tell you his name.” It’s amazing how my students immediately verbalize highly effective strategies for dealing with these issues. For the younger set, we watch puppets literally wrestle with familiar social and academic glitches. Sometimes I wonder what kind of teacher I am, since Rocky the raccoon and Sandy the pup never learn to take turns, listen to others, or manage their frustration!
In the examples I’ve shared, there is a downside to using anonymous scholars. A student with very low self-esteem may attempt to build his confidence on the back of that pitiful kid who can’t add 1 + 1. However, I think that is more easily managed than erasing 50% of the answers on a math page, then telling the kids they are improving. Who would believe that?