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.

Creating a strategy-based classroom

Increasingly, educators realize that in a world where content can be revised and updated almost daily, the ability to understand one’s process for creating meaning of content, rather than memorizing that content, is a critical component in becoming a successful learner. One aspect of understanding process includes knowing the strategies you use when you need to create meaning of difficult text – whether it’s a written text, a visual text, a math problem, or a science experiment. Simply put “What works for me when I’m stuck?”

In the 2012 literature review titled “Teaching Adolescents to Become Learners,” The University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago Research dedicates a chapter to exploring the relationship between learning strategies and academic success and suggests that “teaching adolescents to become learners depends in large part on the identification of effective strategies that teachers can share with students to help them achieve their academic goals” (46).

When students have not identified strategies to use when they encounter difficulties while studying/learning, it can lead to poor academic performance which in turn can undermine their belief that they can be successful. The ability to persist – to remain optimistic about learning – can suffer when they find themselves in a cycle of struggle and failure. As they progress through the educational system and as content becomes more difficult, they may unknowingly self-sabotage success rather than risk the pain of continued failure claiming that the work is stupid, that they could do it but they don’t care, or that the teacher is unfair.

Frequently at this point, their only strategies are “trying harder” and “studying longer” – both abstract and ineffective. We need to arm them with a repertoire of learning strategies that can lead to academic success and, ultimately, help them maintain their optimism about future success or, more importantly, allow reluctant learners to re-enter the system with an a renewed belief that school is a place there they belong and where they can experience success.

This posting (and many to follow) will provide practical classroom examples of how to incorporate strategy instruction into the secondary classroom; I will share strategies that I have introduced and that my students have created.

First up…creating meaning of difficult text!

Target: A strategy-driven curriculum allows learners to experiment with the strategies introduced by the teacher; however, the ultimate target is to provide opportunities for each learner to revise the strategy introduced by the teacher, to reject it after a reasonable trial, and over time to own their own personal repertoire of learning strategies.

In my Freshman Reading class the introduction to strategy instruction begins by reading a short story and experimenting with four different strategies during that one story. I frequently use “And Summer Is Gone” by Susie Kretschmer as my intro story since it deals with the struggles of entering high school and having to choose whether to stay loyal to friends who might not be considered “cool” in this new setting.

Strategy #1: Annotations
I start by introducing an annotation system designed to accurately identify the who, what, where, when, and how of the story – what we call surface meaning. I emphasize that if this surface-level knowledge is inaccurate, determining why the author wrote the text or why an historical event impacted future events (the deep meaning) can lead to erroneous connections, assumptions, and interpretations. I insist that they experiment with my system until they can provide evidence that their revisions to this annotation system better supports their creation of meaning.

Surface annotations symbols:
Who = circle
When/where = square or box
Unknown vocabulary = squiggly line
Important what = underline (with a limit of three important “whats” per page)
Assigned focus = * in the margins (i.e. identify where you make personal connections to the text)

Strategy #2: Quote/Response freewrite
Next I ask them to return to their annotations and choose an important quote they underlined or starred (word, phrase, or sentence) and write that quote at the top of a clean journal page. Freewrite for five minutes about that quote asking yourself “what insight does this quote give me as to “why” the author wrote this story?” Time the writing for five minutes – no stopping. I always write with them!  I love this Norman Mailer quote to support the power of non-stop writing:
“Once in a while your hand will write a sentence that seems true and yet you do not know where it came from. It may be one’s nicest reward as a writer.”

It is important to tie their annotating to additional strategies for creating meaning.  Annotations are the foundation for meaning-making.  Too often students see this step as busy work because they don’t understand how to use the annotations in the next step of the meaning-making process (both in writing and during discussion).

Strategy #3: Two Whys (or three or four…)
At the conclusion of the five minute freewrite, we stop and reread our writing and then write the single word “Why?” or a new “Why” question under the last line of writing. Write another five minutes answering the “why” about the previous writing.  This strategy pushes them to explain the content in a deeper way rather than rely on the single sentence answer that frustrates us as teachers.

You can repeat this step for as long as they continue to be engaged in the writing. My personal goal is thirty-minutes of “whys” by the end of the school year. It is so exciting to watch them learn to value the process of writing as discovery, but it takes time to develop.

Why strategy: note that Emma chose to open with a why question and she followed that with two more “whys” during her entry.

Strategy #4: Naming meaning-making and process
Finally, at the bottom of the entry write “New understanding:” Reread the entire entry and name on one idea that emerged during your writing. Choose something that you hadn’t considered while you read the story – something that didn’t come to you until you wrote your journal entry. Also, name the strategy where this idea emerged. Was it during the quote/response freewrite or after you posed a “why”?

As a reminder, the target of strategy-based instruction is to introduce learning strategies, to provide multiple opportunities for experimentation that result in revising, abandoning or owning strategies, and ultimately, for students to create a repertoire that works for them as learners/scholars. With this in mind, it is critical that students/scholars track what worked for them, how they tweaked a strategy, and why they abandoned one. You might create a structure for a strategy log that allows them to document their discoveries. This is especially important for classroom teachers who have caseloads of over 100 students. In essence, this system allows you to differentiate instruction for each student while they document the results for you.

Future posts: More strategies (many more) and for classroom teachers, ideas for how to grade journal entries that value both process and plausible interpretations.

Academic Play

The role of academic play in meaning-making and identity formation

Let me open with an “assignment” from my Freshman Reading class:

Find a place in your journal entry where you think “you’re on to something.” Circle a word, phrase, or sentence and draw an arrow from your circle to the next place in your journal where you have blank paper. Focus on the idea you circled. Play with it! See where the writing takes you.

We call this meaning-making strategy “looping.” Below is an example for the story “The Bet” by Anton Chekhov. Note that the student set a personal goal for the entry at the top of the page: “I will stick to one idea longer and use evidence to support it.” Then she lists the written response strategies that might help her achieve that goal: freewrite, looping, 3 why’s, annotations, targets, quote/response, goal setting, and the grading rubric. As she writes, she chooses the strategy that she needs in the moment to help her “play” with the ideas in the text.

Journal entry from “The Bet”

She chooses to loop with the word “books” and the word “money” as she pushes herself to continue playing with ideas. Ultimately, she will bring her constructed understanding of this text to our discussion group.

Or consider this example of academic play from a science class:

As part of a final assessment in Freshman Physics, students are challenged to create a Rube Goldberg machine, an innovative contraption where an inventor develops a sophisticated, multi-step machine using a series of everyday objects to solve a simple problem. The students must create a machine that incorporates a minimum of ten moves to crack an egg. The classroom is alive with the sounds of discovery: laughter, groans, sighs, and cheers. They try on new ideas, laugh at their mistakes, and ultimately their physics “play” results in success when the egg cracks.

For academic play to be meaningful to the learner, it is absolutely essential for the teacher to lead students in reflection and discussion about the experience. Playing in a classroom without processing is time spent engaging in a fun activity without deep learning. Skilled teachers recognize that the play is the foundation for the deep reflections on the learning process. In the case of the freshman physics project, the importance of the activity lies not in the final machine the students create but in the final reflections about what they learned about physics and how they can connect that learning to future experiments both in and outside the classroom.

In the example from my classroom, the purpose of the play is two-fold. I want students to understand that meaning-making is messy; there is no direct route – no one answer nor is there one right way to get to an answer. Understanding a text (an event, a person) involves “playing with” multiple ideas before deciding on an interpretation. This is the type of academic “play” also provides a way for learners to try on being “smart” – especially those learners who have come to believe this identity is not attainable for them. “Play is also the medium of mastery, indeed of creation, of ourselves as human actors…through play our fancied selves become material” (Holland, et al. 2001).

Gladwell (2008) discusses research by university math professors that demonstrates that individuals who are successful in mathematics tend to “play” with math, searching through wrong answers until an eventual solution is discovered. Conversely, those who are unsuccessful in math tend to treat math as problems with quick answers. These individuals do not spend time playing with math but rather quickly move on to problems that they can quickly solve. For the successful math student, math then is often seen as a game; it is a puzzle or a riddle to be solved. For them, time spent studying math is thought to be more about time playing with math, and, thus, the learning process is both enjoyable and rewarding.

As adults, our students will continue this process of trying on, revising, and entering new roles in both their personal and professional lives. Depending upon your age, you may remember needing a safe context to try on and to play with becoming technologically literate. Students of a new language need space to play aloud with the sound of that language in order to move to fluency – in order to acquire the confidence to use the language in a public setting. Those of us who were corrected for every incorrect pronunciation and every missed accent mark may be reading this article as monolinguals.

Classrooms need to provide contexts, safe places, where students can play with “trying on” academic identity. This type of academic “play” allows students to think through possibilities, to push themselves beyond their current thinking, and to take the risks that allow them to grow as learners.

References:

Gladwell, M. Outliers: The Story of Success. New York: Little, Brown, and Companay. 2008.

Holland, Dorothy, et al. Identity and Agency in Cultural Worlds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 2001.