The Language of Learning

Over my years as a secondary educator, I have come to believe that, first and foremost, I have a responsibility to nurture a passion for learning in my students. As educators, we entered the profession because we love to learn – to be in school – and passing on that passion should be our legacy regardless of our subject expertise or of the chronological age of the students who enter our classroom door.

Accepting this belief means that teachers across content areas must use their content as a vehicle to fuel passion. They need to agree on common language that allows students to visualize the connections across their subject areas, especially in a high school setting where students tend to believe learning starts and ends with the ringing of a bell.

And to complicate the matter, we need to differentiate the learning process so that all learners can enter their learning with manageable and developmentally appropriate targets – even when classrooms contain 25+ students.

The document that I will share here attempts to address what seems to be the insurmountable challenges connected to the above philosophy. It articulates a common language for making meaning of content visible and sets forth concrete, developmental stages for growth. Integrating common language across disciplines rather than a singular focus on content integration may better respect the shifting nature of knowledge construction in today’s world.

Ways of Thinking: The Language of Learning

The Language of Learning document defines common language that learners use to create meaning of difficult content across all disciplines. However, learners need strategies in order to manipulate this language. Our role is to help our students to expand their repertoire of strategies and to expand the language they use within a strategy.

Let me provide an example from my Freshman English class. The student is trying to understand the significance of a short story titled “The Cage” by Heinrich Boll. The strategy she chooses is a freewrite, but the extended writing doesn’t result in a plausible interpretation. She needs to both reflect on the strategy she chose and on the language she used within that strategy. When she does that, she finds that the entire entry consists of trying on one opinion after another opinion; ultimately, she rejects all of them. However, if she had chosen to write about author’s craft, specifically identifying potential symbols, she may have experienced success. Or if she had experimented with connecting the text to an historical time period, she may have opened an avenue to insight.

In order to make that shift within her chosen strategy, she needs to know her language options. The Language of Learning document outlines not only the language but also the developmental levels of language usage that can lead a learner to deeper understanding of content. It captures learning in print – makes it visible.

Think of your own meaning-making process. Do you enter text through questions? Is your first reaction to share an opinion? Or do you critique the information/source? For me, it is connections – trying to access the unknown though my known. Just as we need a repertoire of strategies to access when we are thinking our way through “stuck,” we also need to know the language that is available. Ultimately, the strategies and the language become intuitive for the learner. We only consciously bring forth a strategy or specific language when we find ourselves confronted with difficult text. But as educators, we need to make both of these choices visible for our learners so that, just as we have, eventually, they internalize what works best for them.

A bit of history (I will be brief): The creators of the original draft were primarily high school English and reading teachers. Their classes were filled with students who had concluded that you were either born a good reader or you were not, and they…were not. Their only strategies for changing this believe were “reading harder” and “rereading.” The frustration for us, as their teachers, was the fact that reading is an invisible, in-head process; we needed a way to make it visible, to demystify it. We needed a way for struggling readers to control the process so they could see their own growth and could plan next steps in concrete, manageable ways. We needed to find a visible way to teach reading – to capture the process of reading in print.

One of our colleagues, Carol Porter -O’Donnell, took the lead by making observations in our classrooms, listening to the type of comments that students used to talk about their reading – to make meaning of text. As categories emerged across classes, we met to flush out “beginning” to “proficient” skills levels in each category (I will provide a detailed explanation of how we used that early document in a future post.

Years later Carol and I found ourselves together in a different school but once again teaching reading with new colleague. An intensive workshop facilitated by Rick Stiggins motivated us to revise the third-person format of the original document to first-person as a way to highlight student ownership in learning rather than the original third-person language that suggested this was something teachers own. Our students provided input about language that didn’t make sense to them, and we worked to make all descriptions student-friendly. Finally, we revised the terminology under each category from “levels” to “targets.” The first-person targets supported students in their self-assessment of “I can see where I am” and in their planning of “I can see where I go next.” Our students trusted that we would help them create a plan to experience success on their journey toward the next target.

So…how do you use this language? From Wheatley and Frieze in Walk Out, Walk On – “People often say, ‘We don’t want to waste time reinventing the wheel.’ But we do need to reinvent the wheel. And it’s never a waste of time. What we learn from others’ successful innovations is that wheels are possible. What others invent can inspire us to become inventive, can show us what is achievable. Then we have to take it from there.”

I will share ideas with you about how I have used the language and the document in my classroom, and I will share ideas about how I envision using it in a systematic way. However, the exciting aspect of this work is grounded in the question “How do I use it in my context with my students?” The language transfers across contexts; the implementation must be your “wheel” – your creation. I expect that my students’ interpretations of texts will differ from mine given the life experiences that we each bring to our interpretation. I share my interpretation and add my voice to the multiple perspectives shared in our class discussions, and my ideas may ultimately shape their final interpretation, the interpretation that they own.

The implementation of this language is a similar process. I will share my practice in future posts and my ideas may spark conversations with your colleagues but the excitement of creation and ownership comes when you create a process, a structure, with your “kids” as the motivation for the work.
A suggestion for immediate tweaking to your practice: a Ways of Thinking bookmark to guide annotations. Whether your students are reading a novel, a history text, or preparing for a science experiment, the process language outlined by the Ways of Thinking can guide their reading. In this example, the targets have been revised into a question format and the students are asked to find places in the text where they can answer those questions and to note their answers in the margins as their annotations. Too often, students are frustrated by the abstract nature of annotating, seeing it as a busy-work assignment rather than understanding how the annotating can be an active reading strategy that pushes them to interact with the text. We print the bookmark back-to-back and cut it the size of a bookmark.

Future posts: #1: How to assess the target level of your students and #2: Ways of Thinking in the math classroom

Boll, Heinrich. The Collected Stories of Heinrich Boll.  Melville House. Brooklyn, New York. 2011.

Ways of Thinking document with names of all authors who provided input during the creation and revision process.

Wheatley, M. and Frieze, D. Walk Out, Walk On.  Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc. San Francisco, CA. 2011.


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