Creating a strategy-based classroom

Increasingly, educators realize that in a world where content can be revised and updated almost daily, the ability to understand one’s process for creating meaning of content, rather than memorizing that content, is a critical component in becoming a successful learner. One aspect of understanding process includes knowing the strategies you use when you need to create meaning of difficult text – whether it’s a written text, a visual text, a math problem, or a science experiment. Simply put “What works for me when I’m stuck?”

In the 2012 literature review titled “Teaching Adolescents to Become Learners,” The University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago Research dedicates a chapter to exploring the relationship between learning strategies and academic success and suggests that “teaching adolescents to become learners depends in large part on the identification of effective strategies that teachers can share with students to help them achieve their academic goals” (46).

When students have not identified strategies to use when they encounter difficulties while studying/learning, it can lead to poor academic performance which in turn can undermine their belief that they can be successful. The ability to persist – to remain optimistic about learning – can suffer when they find themselves in a cycle of struggle and failure. As they progress through the educational system and as content becomes more difficult, they may unknowingly self-sabotage success rather than risk the pain of continued failure claiming that the work is stupid, that they could do it but they don’t care, or that the teacher is unfair.

Frequently at this point, their only strategies are “trying harder” and “studying longer” – both abstract and ineffective. We need to arm them with a repertoire of learning strategies that can lead to academic success and, ultimately, help them maintain their optimism about future success or, more importantly, allow reluctant learners to re-enter the system with an a renewed belief that school is a place there they belong and where they can experience success.

This posting (and many to follow) will provide practical classroom examples of how to incorporate strategy instruction into the secondary classroom; I will share strategies that I have introduced and that my students have created.

First up…creating meaning of difficult text!

Target: A strategy-driven curriculum allows learners to experiment with the strategies introduced by the teacher; however, the ultimate target is to provide opportunities for each learner to revise the strategy introduced by the teacher, to reject it after a reasonable trial, and over time to own their own personal repertoire of learning strategies.

In my Freshman Reading class the introduction to strategy instruction begins by reading a short story and experimenting with four different strategies during that one story. I frequently use “And Summer Is Gone” by Susie Kretschmer as my intro story since it deals with the struggles of entering high school and having to choose whether to stay loyal to friends who might not be considered “cool” in this new setting.

Strategy #1: Annotations
I start by introducing an annotation system designed to accurately identify the who, what, where, when, and how of the story – what we call surface meaning. I emphasize that if this surface-level knowledge is inaccurate, determining why the author wrote the text or why an historical event impacted future events (the deep meaning) can lead to erroneous connections, assumptions, and interpretations. I insist that they experiment with my system until they can provide evidence that their revisions to this annotation system better supports their creation of meaning.

Surface annotations symbols:
Who = circle
When/where = square or box
Unknown vocabulary = squiggly line
Important what = underline (with a limit of three important “whats” per page)
Assigned focus = * in the margins (i.e. identify where you make personal connections to the text)

Strategy #2: Quote/Response freewrite
Next I ask them to return to their annotations and choose an important quote they underlined or starred (word, phrase, or sentence) and write that quote at the top of a clean journal page. Freewrite for five minutes about that quote asking yourself “what insight does this quote give me as to “why” the author wrote this story?” Time the writing for five minutes – no stopping. I always write with them!  I love this Norman Mailer quote to support the power of non-stop writing:
“Once in a while your hand will write a sentence that seems true and yet you do not know where it came from. It may be one’s nicest reward as a writer.”

It is important to tie their annotating to additional strategies for creating meaning.  Annotations are the foundation for meaning-making.  Too often students see this step as busy work because they don’t understand how to use the annotations in the next step of the meaning-making process (both in writing and during discussion).

Strategy #3: Two Whys (or three or four…)
At the conclusion of the five minute freewrite, we stop and reread our writing and then write the single word “Why?” or a new “Why” question under the last line of writing. Write another five minutes answering the “why” about the previous writing.  This strategy pushes them to explain the content in a deeper way rather than rely on the single sentence answer that frustrates us as teachers.

You can repeat this step for as long as they continue to be engaged in the writing. My personal goal is thirty-minutes of “whys” by the end of the school year. It is so exciting to watch them learn to value the process of writing as discovery, but it takes time to develop.

Why strategy: note that Emma chose to open with a why question and she followed that with two more “whys” during her entry.

Strategy #4: Naming meaning-making and process
Finally, at the bottom of the entry write “New understanding:” Reread the entire entry and name on one idea that emerged during your writing. Choose something that you hadn’t considered while you read the story – something that didn’t come to you until you wrote your journal entry. Also, name the strategy where this idea emerged. Was it during the quote/response freewrite or after you posed a “why”?

As a reminder, the target of strategy-based instruction is to introduce learning strategies, to provide multiple opportunities for experimentation that result in revising, abandoning or owning strategies, and ultimately, for students to create a repertoire that works for them as learners/scholars. With this in mind, it is critical that students/scholars track what worked for them, how they tweaked a strategy, and why they abandoned one. You might create a structure for a strategy log that allows them to document their discoveries. This is especially important for classroom teachers who have caseloads of over 100 students. In essence, this system allows you to differentiate instruction for each student while they document the results for you.

Future posts: More strategies (many more) and for classroom teachers, ideas for how to grade journal entries that value both process and plausible interpretations.

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Academic Play

The role of academic play in meaning-making and identity formation

Let me open with an “assignment” from my Freshman Reading class:

Find a place in your journal entry where you think “you’re on to something.” Circle a word, phrase, or sentence and draw an arrow from your circle to the next place in your journal where you have blank paper. Focus on the idea you circled. Play with it! See where the writing takes you.

We call this meaning-making strategy “looping.” Below is an example for the story “The Bet” by Anton Chekhov. Note that the student set a personal goal for the entry at the top of the page: “I will stick to one idea longer and use evidence to support it.” Then she lists the written response strategies that might help her achieve that goal: freewrite, looping, 3 why’s, annotations, targets, quote/response, goal setting, and the grading rubric. As she writes, she chooses the strategy that she needs in the moment to help her “play” with the ideas in the text.

Journal entry from “The Bet”

She chooses to loop with the word “books” and the word “money” as she pushes herself to continue playing with ideas. Ultimately, she will bring her constructed understanding of this text to our discussion group.

Or consider this example of academic play from a science class:

As part of a final assessment in Freshman Physics, students are challenged to create a Rube Goldberg machine, an innovative contraption where an inventor develops a sophisticated, multi-step machine using a series of everyday objects to solve a simple problem. The students must create a machine that incorporates a minimum of ten moves to crack an egg. The classroom is alive with the sounds of discovery: laughter, groans, sighs, and cheers. They try on new ideas, laugh at their mistakes, and ultimately their physics “play” results in success when the egg cracks.

For academic play to be meaningful to the learner, it is absolutely essential for the teacher to lead students in reflection and discussion about the experience. Playing in a classroom without processing is time spent engaging in a fun activity without deep learning. Skilled teachers recognize that the play is the foundation for the deep reflections on the learning process. In the case of the freshman physics project, the importance of the activity lies not in the final machine the students create but in the final reflections about what they learned about physics and how they can connect that learning to future experiments both in and outside the classroom.

In the example from my classroom, the purpose of the play is two-fold. I want students to understand that meaning-making is messy; there is no direct route – no one answer nor is there one right way to get to an answer. Understanding a text (an event, a person) involves “playing with” multiple ideas before deciding on an interpretation. This is the type of academic “play” also provides a way for learners to try on being “smart” – especially those learners who have come to believe this identity is not attainable for them. “Play is also the medium of mastery, indeed of creation, of ourselves as human actors…through play our fancied selves become material” (Holland, et al. 2001).

Gladwell (2008) discusses research by university math professors that demonstrates that individuals who are successful in mathematics tend to “play” with math, searching through wrong answers until an eventual solution is discovered. Conversely, those who are unsuccessful in math tend to treat math as problems with quick answers. These individuals do not spend time playing with math but rather quickly move on to problems that they can quickly solve. For the successful math student, math then is often seen as a game; it is a puzzle or a riddle to be solved. For them, time spent studying math is thought to be more about time playing with math, and, thus, the learning process is both enjoyable and rewarding.

As adults, our students will continue this process of trying on, revising, and entering new roles in both their personal and professional lives. Depending upon your age, you may remember needing a safe context to try on and to play with becoming technologically literate. Students of a new language need space to play aloud with the sound of that language in order to move to fluency – in order to acquire the confidence to use the language in a public setting. Those of us who were corrected for every incorrect pronunciation and every missed accent mark may be reading this article as monolinguals.

Classrooms need to provide contexts, safe places, where students can play with “trying on” academic identity. This type of academic “play” allows students to think through possibilities, to push themselves beyond their current thinking, and to take the risks that allow them to grow as learners.

References:

Gladwell, M. Outliers: The Story of Success. New York: Little, Brown, and Companay. 2008.

Holland, Dorothy, et al. Identity and Agency in Cultural Worlds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 2001.