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

 

 

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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

References:
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.

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.