Student Strategy Sharing

In several of my previous blog posts, I have discussed the importance of both introducing learning strategies and providing multiple opportunities for experimentation that result in students’ revising, abandoning or owning strategies.  The goal is for students to own a repertoire of strategies that work for them as learners when they encounter difficult content – simply put, strategies to use when they are stuck.  However, we (teachers) don’t need to be the “keeper” or the “creator” of all these strategies.  Students bring strategies to the work we introduce, and by respecting their expertise, we can accomplish goals far beyond the simple ownership of strategies.

I believe that

  • it is important to involve students in strategy work.
  • our students have existing strategies that we can help them to identify and to name.
  • sharing strategies among students nurtures ownership and, therefore, can build positive academic identity.
  • strategy sharing creates an academic community within the classroom where students are involved in the success of fellow students.

In preparation for students to take-over strategy sharing, I engage them in conversations and in writing about how they created meaning of difficult text in our class (This can happen in any content area). We start by focusing on strategies I have introduced to them in our class, and we expand our conversations to include strategies they have created for themselves.   These conversations and writing are guided by the following questions:

  • What strategies do you use to when you are stuck difficult content?
  • Where did you get your strategy?
  • How did you know to use that specific strategy with a specific text/problem?
  • Knowing what you know about yourself as a learner, why do you think that strategy works well for you?
  • What evidence do you have that this strategy actually works?
  • Have you used this strategy with other texts/in other settings?

We spend a small portion of class exploring personal-strategy use before we move to the sharing process.  They need to be comfortable with the language of naming and explaining strategies before they will be able to assist each other.  When the student sharing begins, I structure the sharing using an activity I call “walk-about-review” (the structure of this activity is probably from a workshop I attended, but I can’t remember the origin).  Students first complete a reflection about the strategy they used with last night’s homework, and then they “Walk-About” to four different students to hear about the strategy they used.  I time the move from student-to-student – usually five minutes per session.  There is a comfort level in the sharing even for those students who tend to play the role of observer.  It is their process; they could not be “wrong.”  They keep a master list of the students whom they have talked with and they cannot repeat a student during these sharing sessions.  Adaptation:  A colleague of mine renamed this activity “Strategy Speed Dating.”

Ultimately, students are asked to write on a large post-it or an index card the strategy that works best for them when they need to move their understanding of text from a surface level to a deeper level of interpretation.  Most recently, I was involved with a team who was facilitating this process across several sections of students, so we brought our post-its and cards to a staff meeting, read their strategies and grouped like-strategies into piles.  Then we created a category for each pile:

  • Understanding references and context (text-to-text)
  • Understanding two text together (text-to-text)
  • Understanding textual structure
  • Understanding works and sentences
  • Writing to understand text
  • Understanding characters and setting
  • Annotation texts

What’s next?? A meaningful high school bulletin board!!  We created the above headings for the bulletin boards/walls in the classroom.  After briefly explaining each category, we returned the post-its to their owners, and they posted their responses under the appropriate categories, including their name on their strategy

Students were asked (a.k.a. assigned) to experiment with strategies on the board to expand their personal repertoire. If the new strategy worked for them, they wrote their name on a colored dot sticker and posted it on the board by the strategy.

Here is a scan of the postings from that bulletin board: How do I create meaning of difficult text?

Observations:  We saw students turn to each other for more than the answer – the quick fix.  They truly wanted to know the process that worked for other students, and they were eager to share their discoveries.

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Students as Researchers

In the entry “The Language of Learning,” I discuss the need to define a common language across academic contexts as a way to make learning visible for students of all ages. When learning is visible, learners can control the language they use in order to create meaning of difficult content. The ultimate goal is to move control of language to an in-head process; however, first, the learner must understand the language available to them and that involves creating processes for making learning a concrete, visible experience.

I will share the process that colleagues and I created (and revised with the help of our students) that puts students in the role of researcher, collecting and analyzing their own data as way to understand, and to control, their individual learning process.  Hopefully, my practice will spark conversations with your colleagues about adaptations that will work in your context.

Early in the school year, we read and write about several short stories. My only direction to them is “make comments in the margins of the story that will help you understand what you are reading.” Then they write responses to the stories with the direction “write an entry that helps you explore why you think the author wrote this story.” This is their qualitative, baseline data. It must be dated and collected in a way that will allow students to return to it easily for comparison and contrast. When back-to-school sales offer spiral notebooks for a reasonable price, I buy my daily allotment and stockpile them for this purpose. However, if you are in a school district with individual laptops, you may choose an electronic journal format.

After multiple entries, the analysis begins! I explain that they will be researchers with me (I do every assignment with them). I share the Language for Learning document (we tape a color copy in their notebooks for easy reference), and I explain how and why colleagues and I created this language. Even reluctant learners are intrigued by the concrete, analytical nature of the what I am explaining. “This may be different. I may be good at this.” (If you are struggling with following my description of this process, the foundation for my thinking is in the entry The Language of Learning.)

I have a zip-lock bag of colored pencils that correspond with the colors on the Language of Learning document (one bag for each two students). We begin with our first journal entry of the year – my entry projected for all to see. Category-by-category we analyze our response and underline our discoveries in the color that corresponds with the one in the document.  Every line of the entry will eventually be coded.

In example #1, Emma discovers that her predominant colors are green (opinion) and yellow (summary).  The colors literally make her thinking visible.  After we have color-coded three or four entries, they have a large enough sample to see patterns in their thinking, and they create a summary of their discoveries by listing the color they see most to least often.

I explain “the goal is to push yourself beyond your “go-to” language when creating meaning of difficult content – to understand that when you are “stuck,” there are other options for how to enter the content.  However, we don’t want to abandon the language that works for you.”

We create two goals to guide their next response to text:
• I will continue to use ____ (fill in the blank with one of the colors you listed as #1 or #2).
• I will push myself to explore _________ (fill in the blank with a color listed as #5 or #6).

In her October 21 entry, you can see that Emma lists her goals at the top of her journal page as a reminder, and she color-codes to see exactly what happened in her writing.  Note that entry #1 was dated 9/10 and the goal-guided entry was written on 10/21.  The process of collecting baseline data, analyzing responses, setting goals based on the analysis, and using your goals in future entries is a bit over a month.  When you reread  her first response and her 10/21 response, it is easy to see that the process has led her to explore meaning with more depth and thought.  And…every student in the class is using individual goals to guide their response based on their personal discoveries about their thinking process.

In most cases, they have never considered the language they use when they are trying to make sense of something they are reading or of a problem they are solving.  Their discoveries give them options, but most importantly, their discoveries give them control.  They know what they are doing, and they understand how to set concrete, manageable goals to guide next steps.

Future entries:

  • What if their goal-directed entries don’t lead to a plausible interpretation of text?  What if they are wrong :)?
  • Using the Language of Learning to guide discussion

 

 

Creating Meaning of Text

“A gap persists between research findings and teachers’ intentional use of strategies to promote positive student mindsets” (38).

As my Schuler Scholar school team and I read chapters in “Teaching Adolescents to Become Learners” by The University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago Research, we were especially struck by this sentence. Filling the “gap” became a challenge that guided our work with students.

We believed

• that it was important to involve students in strategy work.
• that our students had existing strategies that we needed to help them identify and name.
• that sharing strategies among students could nurture ownership and, therefore, build positive academic identity.
• that this type of sharing created an academic community within the classroom.

Throughout first semester, we engaged students in conversations and in writing about how they created meaning of difficult text. We started by focusing on strategies they used with text from English classes (Schuler SCs – with text used in reading coaching). Process talk and reflective process writing was guided by the following questions:

What strategies do you use to create meaning of difficult texts?

• Where did you get your strategy?
• How did you know to use that specific strategy with a specific text?
• Knowing what you know about yourself as a learner, why do you think that strategy works  well for you?
• What evidence do you have that this strategy actually works?
• Have you used this strategy with other texts/in other settings?

Ultimately, students were asked to write on a large post-it or an index card the strategy that works best for them when they need to move their understanding of text from a surface level to a deeper level of interpretation. During a staff meeting, we read their responses and grouped them into the following categories:

• Understanding references and context (text-to-text)
• Understanding two text together (text-to-text)
• Understanding textual structure
• Understanding works and sentences
• Writing to understand text
• Understanding characters and setting
• Annotation texts

What’s next?? A meaningful high school bulletin board!! Students posted their responses under the appropriate categories on a bulletin board headed “Creating Meaning of Difficult Text.” They included their name on their strategy so other students could approach them for further explanation, a sharing process that we facilitated during class/STEP.

Students were asked (a.k.a. assigned) to experiment with strategies on the board as a way to expand their personal repertoire. If the strategy worked for them, they wrote their name on a colored dot sticker and posted it on the board by the strategy.

Here is a scan of the postings from that bulletin board: How do I create meaning of difficult text?

Observations:  We saw students turn to each other for more than the answer – the quick fix.  They truly wanted to know the process that worked for other students, and since they were sharing strategies that worked for them personally, they was a comfort level in the sharing even for those students who tend to play the role of observer.  It was their process; they could not be “wrong.”

Finally, as students actively experimented with strategies, we encouraged them to add those that worked to their strategy log (described in Creating a Strategy-based Classroom).

Next post: Making Learning Visible

 

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.

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.

The Cheeseburger Theory

Once a month a rotating population of teenagers gathered in the Principal’s office at a school where I worked as a district administrator and reading teacher. The Principal carefully finessed soliciting their input on a variety of topics (complaining about teachers not allowed) and closed the session by asking how he could do a better job. One session revealed a serious concern from a young man who had the misfortune of being scheduled for the final lunch period of the day. He lamented, “They are always out of cheeseburgers.”  The Principal walked down to the cafeteria post discussion, and after a brief chat with the Food Service Director was assured that tomorrow, there would be cheeseburgers. The word spend like wildfire: He really listens!

Each time he held a session, he chose one thing he could implement immediately so students knew that he was serious about their input  and that these meetings impacted school decisions. His credibility soared! And so…when he needed to make changes to policies or curriculum or make difficult personnel decisions, the students trusted him, believed he had their best interest at heart.

I have always called this The Cheeseburger Theory and have shared this story and theory with colleagues throughout my career. This story is now almost twenty years old, and, recently, John Hattie’s research (2009) names exactly what was happening in the Principal’s office. “Students are very perceptive about knowing which teachers can make a difference. There are four key factors of credibility: trust, competence, dynamism and immediacy” (https://www.tes.co.uk/article.aspx?storycode=6179294). Although all of the key factors can be found both in this story and in the practice of facilitating student listening groups, it was the immediacy of his response that provided the pathway to trust.

Now that your Literacy Event top-five list has been created (see August 9 and August 10 posts), it’s time to apply The Cheeseburger Theory. Choose one of the characteristics from the class list to incorporate into the next-day lesson, and then leave five minutes at the close of class to name exactly how you used this trait in your planning. Follow this by asking if anyone saw any of the other traits evident in the day’s work. The message is clear “Trust me. I will listen, and I need your input to make our work meaningful.” This becomes your entry to establishing a level of credibility that will allow you to challenge all students to engage in rigorous work and thoughtful conversations as the semester progresses. Credibility is the foundation for creating an academic community where the risk-taking can happen that results in student growth for all the learners in your room.

My next post: A variation on Literacy Events

References:

Evans, Darren. “Make Them Believe in You.” TESS, 17 February 2012.

Hattie, John A.C.  Visible Learning.  New York: Routledge, 2009.  Print.