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.



Making Feedback about Teaching Visible

In an earlier posting titled “The Language of Learning,” I discussed the importance of helping students understand the language they use when making-meaning of difficult content.  Now…let me share some rough draft thinking that a colleague and I are exploring about the importance of understanding this same language for teachers.

First a brief review of what we mean by Language of Learning:

  • It is the language that learners use when making-meaning of difficult content.  The six categories detailed in The Language of Learning document outline different ways to enter content.  When learners examine their process, they find patterns that have become their “go-to” language when learning.  An analysis of language allows learners to continue using the language that supports their learning but also to experiment with language that might provide new entryways to understanding or that might be more effective in different content areas.

Summary, connections, predictions, opinions, questions, and reflection – what is your go-to language when you are stuck – when you need to unpack an idea – to make sense of something that isn’t immediately apparent?

My go-to is personal connection; I tend to make sense of something unknown through my known.  Trying to find an experience or a text that made sense to me helps clarify my current struggle.

As I reflect on my own teaching style, I realize that I incorporate my connection-tendency into the content and structure of my lessons.  In hindsight, I wonder which learners were supported and which were frustrated by my language choices.  What if I had consciously balanced my use of language as a way to provide access to understanding for those learners whose entry was different than mine?

We propose that once the language of learning is made visible, it is possible to use this language as an objective lens for analysis and, therefore, feedback about written lesson plans and about classroom sessions.

Let me provide a brief example.  A colleague of mine shared a written copy of a lesson plan she created that introduces poetry writing to students.  I used the Language of Learning as a lens to both name the language she used and to assess the developmental level of that language used in her plan.

  1. (5) Fine Dining/Fine Writing. What is the difference between eating and dining? List definitions on board. Target 1 question
  2. Hand out snacks—everyday (cheap) peanut butter and freshly ground peanut butter. Maybe saltines and really good crackers for spreading peanut butter. Or you can use store bought cookies and homemade cookies. Target 1 connection
  3. (5) Scholars can make two columns in their journals to describe the taste of each version.  Share these descriptions. Target 1 opinion
  4. (5) What is the difference between the everyday and gourmet versions? List on board next to “eating/dining? List. Target 2 opinion

 I continued this analysis through her 15-step lesson and I discovered her lesson offered the followed language opportunities for her students:

  •  Questions:            6 opportunities
  • Summary:              2
  • Opinions:               5
  • Connections:        5
  • Predictions:          0
  • Process reflection: 0

Then we met to discuss my findings.  Just as I would do for students as they analyze their own language (outlined in the post Students as Researchers), I entered our conversation by sharing what she is doing now in this lesson:

  • She used a variety of language to support learner’s entry to understanding the content. She used four of the language categories.
  • She provided a variety of activities for content exploration and for learner engagement.

Next we discussed how she might extend her practice in order to support a wider range of learners:

  • We discovered that she relied heavily on Target 1 questioning; therefore, entering the next plan she could explore balancing Target 1 questioning with Target 2 questioning.
  • The one category from the language document that was not represented in her plan was “Reflection.” Therefore, in the next plan, she could build in process reflection time, which was a goal outlined in the intro to her plan (she was shocked this was missing from her lesson!).

For the analysis of the complete lesson, click here: Poetry Lesson Plan.

This is a concrete, visible way to discuss teaching that has the potential to minimize the feeling of judgment.  Having a supervisor “evaluate” teaching, regardless of the framework used or the relationship with the supervisor, can feel like a personal response to style rather than an objective analysis of content and structure. Of course, there is an art to teaching, but this process provides an entry of science, which can build the relationship between the teacher and supervisor leading to a more philosophical conversation about practice.  It also provides a concise lens for critical reflection for the teacher (see post titled “Summary, Reflection, or Critical Reflection”).

We are excited to explore the Language of Learning and the implications for teachers.  We suspect that intentional use of language in the classroom has the possibility of 1) increasing rigor, 2) enhancing motivation, 3) providing access to understanding for a larger % of students, and 4) nurturing academic mindsets that keep learners engage in the content.

We would appreciate questions, comments, reactions, and suggestions about the thinking shared here.  Help us continue to develop a process to support teachers in their continued journey to support all learners in our classrooms.

Janell Cleland (blog author)

Jodi Wirt, Assistant Superintendent at Lake Zurich High School, Lake Zurich, Illinois



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



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.