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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