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.

Scaffolding Predictions

The The Language of Learning document that I shared in an earlier post defines the common language that learners use to create meaning of difficult content across all disciplines. Naming that language makes it possible to capture learning in print – to make it visible for our students.  Within the categories of language, there are concrete, developmental stages for growth that can lead a learner to deeper understanding of content.  This post will explore the category of “Prediction.”  I will share a strategy that pushes learners to rigorous use of the language of predictions.

Learners need strategies in order to manipulate the Language of Learning. Our role is to help our students to

  • expand their repertoire of strategies.
  • expand the language they use within a strategy.
  • push them to more rigorous use of the language.

The ultimate goal of strategy-based instruction – 1) to exit the strategy with an understanding of the text/content the learner did not have prior to using the strategy – to create an “aha” moment and 2) to determine which strategies accomplish these moments of insight so learners can intentionally implement the strategy when they are “stuck.”

First, let’s examine the developmental levels of the language of Predictions:

Target 1 Make realistic predictions.
Target 2 Make realistic predictions supported by text, life experience, or knowledge base.
Target 3 Confirm, revise, or reject predictions based on evidence and understanding of content.
Target 4 Apply confirmed predictions in order to extend understanding of content.

Whether you are a preschooler predicting what will happen next in a storybook or a math student using predictions to understand mathematical rules, this language applies.  However, too often we ask for the prediction and insist on evidence to support it, but forget to return to that prediction in order to push learners to a Target 3 level of thinking.  This strategy provides a visible, structured look at what it means to make predictions at all developmental levels:

Prediction (Target 1) Evidence to support the prediction (Target 2) Confirm, revise, or reject (Target 3)

 Target 4 Reflection:  Highlight one idea in your chart that helped you understand something about the text/content that you did not understand the first time you read that section of the text (or explore that problem).  What do you understand now that you did not understand before making and analyzing your prediction?

Without the Target 4 reflection, the strategy remains a homework assignment – what students often see as busywork.  However, by providing opportunities for process reflection, learners can begin to appreciate predictions as a way create meaning of text – as language that will help them navigate difficult content.

My practice:  Before my Freshmen English students begin a novel (or a short story), we begin by making Target 1 predictions based on any information available to us – the title, the author’s name, front  and back covers, table of contents, copyright date, etc.  These predictions include Target 2 evidence.  After reading several chapters of the novel (or pages of the short story), I return their chart and they add information in the Target 3 column and then reflect on all the information on the chart in order to respond to the Target 4 reflection questions.

Here is a full-size copy of the above prediction chart:  using-predictions-to-understand-text

Future posts will share strategies that support the developmental nature of the other categories in the Language of Learning.




Freeze Frame: Celebrating Understanding

Throughout my career, I aggressively tried to move students away from the term “smart” as a way to name their academic identity – to no avail.  It is the term they consistently use to describe themselves, so I decided to approach it from a new angle –  to define “smart” – to make it visible and then name when and where “smart” happened in our classroom.  I wanted to create a classroom that allowed students to publicly experience academic success.

I started by narrowing the focus of what I would define, and I settled on a skill set that I felt would transfer to other classes and beyond the school doors: the ability to participate in a discussion.  We began the process of defining the characteristics of an effective discussion.  We watched discussions online (book clubs and college seminars), and my students visited other classes during our class period to observe discussions. Then we shared observations and looked for patterns across our notes and named what it looks and sounds like to be involved in an effective discussion.  We defined “smart” as it relates to discussion:

  • Listen to each other.
  • Be willing to contribute.
  • Don’t dominate; everyone needs a chance.
  • Support opinions with evidence.
  • Respect what is said even if you disagree with it.
  • Shares opinions, asks questions, makes connections, and analyzes author’s craft
  • Work for dialogue (not talk):
    • Build on others’ comments
    • Work toward discovery of new ideas

We began reading and annotating short stories in preparation for our discussions.  The success of our discussion would be measured by whether we left class with a new understanding of the text.  We referred to this as reaching deep meaning where we stopped discussing the surface of the subject/text (who, what, where, when, and how) and moved to “why” – moving beyond what the author says to what the author means.  The skill set identified above became our process to get to deep meaning. One day during discussion, I realized “it” was happening.  We were having a meaningful, thoughtful dialogue; I was worried they weren’t seeing it so out of nowhere I yelled “freeze frame!”  A strategy was born!  The entire class froze.  I ran to the white board and mapped what I could remember about how the comments built to the point where I had stopped them.  I named exactly what I heard and who said it to make visible how the collaborative building of ideas was leading us to deep meaning.

Naming contradicted advice I was given early in my career where naming a student might make them the object of teacher-pet teasing.  Students’ names were used, their contributions were named and analyzed publicly, and they were all encouraged to replicate the process they had just seen and heard as we continued our discussion.  Creating knowledge became visible, and when it is visible, it can be replicated and controlled.  Making-meaning of difficult text became a celebration!

In Emma’s end-of-the-year portfolio, she reflects on what she remembers as being her most memorable discussion.  Her comments illustrate the visual nature of naming academic thinking:

We knew that we were getting close to dialogue because Mrs. Cleland was webbing on the white board (she tends to start webbing when we get to dialogue; this is a habit that she picked up over the year).  Dialogue happened when we started adding to each other’s ideas and getting closer to the deeper meaning that way. We could see where it happened in the web. It was exciting.

Eventually, the students would call their own freeze frames and name what they saw.  We found that an entire class discussion made it impossible for everyone to experience the process and to meet personal discussion goals, so we moved to an inner/outer circle structure.  I created a discussion observation chart for the outer circle to record their observations through our discussion criteria lens.

When visitors came to our class, students invited them to use the strategy if they needed explanation of what was happening or if they saw a process they wanted to share with the class.  One story I will always remember happened when I told my students that visitors from an area high school were coming to observe our freeze frame technique so they could use it in their classrooms.  One student said “Let’s use a story we have already discussed so we look really smart.” Another replied “Mrs. Cleland, why don’t you give us the hardest story you can find so we can really blow them away.”  I knew their academic identities were moving beyond the fragile stage; they knew the process to put into place to create meaning of difficult text, and they were ready to use that process in a public forum.

Here are two journal entries from that class (Freshman Reading) that illustrate the importance of “naming”  and freeze frame as a strategy to nurture academic identity.

Entry #1:          In our class a moment when I felt smart in class was when we were having a discussion and I said something.  During the freeze frame you told the whole class that it was a really good observation and that we built a dialogue out of what I started.  When that happened I felt better about myself and I felt smart in the way where I was actually getting somewhere in the discussion we were having.

Entry #2:          The first time I really helped the class to enter into the deeper meaning of the text was a day that I remember.  The fact that you pointed it out not only to me but to the whole class made me feel even smarter.  The fact that I can really understand the things we read for a deeper meaning just makes me feel like I am more than just a simple student.  I can get the deeper meaning and really understand it.  Not only do I use this in this class but I use this all the time which makes me feel smart all the time.

Connections to other posts;

This example provided an additional illustration to the difference between reflection and critical reflection from a previous post.  At the conclusion of the discussion, you might ask students the following reflection questions:

  • What role did you play in today’s discussion?  Give a specific example.
  • What is comment/question you had in your head but didn’t get a chance to share?
  • What will you do differently during our next discussion?

These questions will encourage students to revisit the discussion and share their perspective with you.  However, in order to move to critical reflection, students use the “characteristics of an effective discussion” as the lens through which they reflect?

  • Which of the characteristics was your strength today?  Give a specific example.
  • Name someone who clearly demonstrated one of the characteristics in today’s discussion. Specifically, what did he/she do that allowed them to demonstrate this characteristic?
  • Which of the characteristics will you work on in tomorrow’s discussion?  Where could you have demonstrated this characteristic in today’s discussion?

One technique is not better than another.  Giving their perspective through reflection may give the personal insight a teacher needs.   For my students and me, critical reflection let us focus on the behavior rather than the person, and in this setting where I was working to nurture academic identity, that was the best strategy choice for us.



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


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.

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.


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.

Summary, Reflection, or Critical Reflection?

“Reflection” – an often-used but consistently-misunderstood term. Research confirms its importance in the learning process (Boud, Keogh, and Walker, 2013). School, state, and national standards include it as a mandatory component in curricula; yet, it remains largely misunderstood in actual classroom practice. The confusion may be resolved by distinguishing the characteristics of three terms that, too often, are used interchangeably:

Summary: a valuable reading strategy that encourages the reader to confirm the accuracy of who, what, where, when, and how as the foundation for asking “why.” If this surface level knowledge is inaccurate, determining why the author wrote the text or why an historical event impacted future events can lead to erroneous connections, assumptions, and interpretations.

Reflection: a strategy that allows learners to retell or rethink an event/experience/text. This retelling typically follows with the learners’ opinion about or personal connection to what they read, heard, or experienced. It is a necessary practice to make sense of daily life, to make a decision about whether to repeat a practice, an action, or an activity; however, it is not a practice that necessarily sparks an in-depth examination of a practice or a behavior.

Critical reflection: Enter Stephen D. Brookfield (1995), who helps us understand that reflection is not, by definition, critical. It becomes critical when you define the lens you purposefully use to question your assumptions and current practice. This type of reflection includes working to understand the power dynamics that may be at play in your practice and among your students. Brookfield suggests there are four important lenses through which educators should critically reflect:
• Through our autobiographies as teachers and learners
• Through our students’ eyes
• Through our colleagues’ experiences
• Through theoretical literature

Classroom teachers might wonder about the questions they have always labeled as reflection. How could they tweak those “reflection” questions to become a vehicle for “critical reflection” for their students?

Here is an example from my practice. Below are the questions that I pose to students at the conclusion of their personal narrative process – a reflection process:

• What is the most important change you made from your first to your final draft? How did that revision improve your narrative?

• What part of your narrative are you most proud of and why?

• What do you know about effective writing that you did not know before you began your narrative?

• What do you feel you need to work on in your next piece of writing? How can you improve this aspect of your writing?

Consider how the answer to these questions might change if I asked students to answer the same questions through the lens of the rubric I use to grade the narrative. This revision from reflection to critical reflection provides students an opportunity to reflect based on research about what makes an effective narrative rather than from their personal reaction to their narrative.

The introduction “hooks” the reader.
It makes the reader want to continue reading
Providing background about characters and setting.

The writer focuses on a specific incident rather than a broad story.

The writer provides detail so they reader can visualize the story.

It is evident that there is a point for sharing this specific story.

The writer uses descriptive language to sustain interest in the story.

The story flows smoothly as a result of word choice (e.g. transitions).

Authentic dialogue is used when appropriate.

The author makes use of varied sentence structure.

The author gains insight as a result of telling this story. There is an element of reflection present.

Another example:
Let me use the content of previous posts to illustrate the differences among the three terms from a teacher, rather than a student, stance.

Summary: I summarized the plans I use with my students to share stories about significant teachers in their lives – when I use this activity, what poem I read, how I design the lesson, and what I hope this accomplishes.

Reflection: At the conclusions of the three-day activity, I reflect on 1) whether I will use the same poem next year, 2) whether I will continue to facilitate the activity as a whole class or break into smaller groups, and 3) whether students provided insights that I need to monitor as the school year progress (i.e. those who were especially nervous sharing with the class).

Critical reflection: Ultimately, the activity is designed to provide a vehicle for critical reflection – a way to view my practice through the eyes of my students. The identification of the characteristics of effective teachers and the tool to provide feedback through the lens of those criteria moves this from a community-building activity to a forum for critical reflection.

Each of these strategies serves an important, but entirely different, purpose in learning and in the learning process. Being conscious of these differences helps us, as educators, to make decisions as we design the learning space for our students.

Future entries will share ideas for how to design critical reflection through the additional lens outlined by Brookfield. A closing testimonial – his text Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher will impact both your teaching philosophy and practice in an on-going and lasting way.


Brookfield, S. Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1995.

Boud, D., Keogh, R., and Walker, D. Reflection: Turning Experience into Learning. London: Routledge, 2013.