As we returned to school-learning after a long break, I asked a group of middle school students, “How do you learn?” They looked at me, puzzled. I explained that I wanted them to think about a time that they learned something new, and think about how they did it; I asked them to tell a story about it. The question turned out to be more difficult than I expected.
Then, after talking about learning to ride a bike, speak a new language, play a new video game or an instrument… , we made a list of what these experiences teach us. The stories of learning can be summarized in five key ideas:
Watch and listen first. Before riding a bike, they watched people ride bikes; before playing an instrument, they watched people play that instrument.
Start out small. It is said that the longest journey begins with a single step, and the same is true for learning. Students first learned how to turn on the machine, or play one note, or ride with training wheels. No one started out playing Mozart.
Learn with others. All of the students talked about getting better while practicing with friends, playing with others, and working with the teacher. The others helped them get better, and encouraged them to keep working at it, not give up. Learning with others also makes it easier to ask questions!
Know that it takes time and practice. Even the best players in the world have coaches, editors, conductors, and teachers. We all need feedback in order to improve; applying and learning from that feedback takes time.
When it gets too easy, move up a level. Yes, they started out with small steps, but then they added complexity, and kept getting better. Staying at the same level did not sound like fun to anyone. Part of the joy was getting good at something, something that was difficult to begin with, and then adding something more when it got too easy.
What are you learning now? Do you share your learning with your friends and family? We are all learners. When we talk about our learning, it becomes normal to be on the road towards a goal, to be in process; we make mistakes and grow from them in order to get better at what we do. And in the process, we are thankful for the opportunity to learn, to grow, to be and to become.
I have been teaching reading and writing for many years, mostly to 4th-8th graders. By the time they get to me, in reading we work on developing vocabulary, understanding the text and text structures, and deepening comprehension. Somewhere along the line, my students’ previous teachers taught them to decode the sounds, understand the words, and make sense of the text at their grade levels. Apparently, in many places that hasn’t been happening.
The podcast series, Sold a Story, is a game changer, unless you already knew or have been changed. The way many schools have been teaching reading has been mistaken, misguided, incomplete, because that’s how teachers were instructed to teach reading. In many places students were not taught to decode the words, to sound it out. While the comprehension strategies such as predicting and understanding the theme are great, first students have to be able to read the words.
Please listen to the series, Sold a Story. You won’t be disappointed.
Do you read The Marginalian? If not, I would highly recommend that you do. There are always ideas that make me say, “Hmmm…wow…interesting, I had not thought about that in that way.” Here is a tidbit that was posted and sent to me (yes, you should sign up for the free newsletter and donate, too):
From a child you can learn
1) to always to be happy; 2) never to sit idle; 3) to cry for everything you want.
From a thief you can learn
1) to work at night; 2) that if you cannot gain what you want in one night to try again the next night; 3) to love your co-workers just as thieves love each other; 4) to be willing to risk your life even for a little thing; 5) not to attach too much value to things even though you have risked your life for them — just as a thief will resell a stolen article for a fraction of its real value; 6) to withstand all kinds of beatings and tortures but to remain what you are; 7) to believe that your work is worthwhile and not be willing to change it.
Sitting down for the reading-of challenged my sense of balance. The wobbly table in front of me offered no support for my arthritic hands. And I feared that any movement of the table would knock over the seven wax candles that flickered atop. The high-backed wicker chair where I was to rest seemed to be held together with strings and rags. Still, I sat. Slowly. Carefully.
Marcia entered cat-like, brushed her flowing robes aside and sat in front of me on a stool that I had not seen. Her long white hair covered her eyes, but with her back to the candles I couldn’t have seen them anyway.
Without saying a word she reached forward and took my cold hands in hers. They were warm. The room was warm. The room lit up, transformed, no, I was in a big city, on a busy corner. Was this New York? I looked down at my hands and they were young again. The pain was gone. I looked up at the kiosk and newspapers held a date years into the future.
I reached my right hand up to inspect a magazine from the kiosk. A stab of agony. I was cold. As suddenly as I had left the room, I returned to the age and the pain and the darkness and the flickering candles.
Slowly she whispered, “I have read-of you. You have seen.”
As she rather floated out of the room the candles extinguished. I slowly stood, in the dark, but I had seen a light.
Do your students say what they want to write before they write it? Whether it is a short exit ticket, the resolution of the conflict in a narrative, a lab report, or something else, there is a lot of power in oral rehearsal at every age.
An easy way to do an oral rehearsal with your students is to do a think-pair-share. You may have heard of this strategy where students take a moment to think about the answer to your question, and then turn to a partner who is near them to share the answer. To complete the cycle, have students write what they shared.
Another way to set up oral rehearsal is for students to have writing partners. Before writing, partners can share what they will write about based on the instructions for the day. After they write, they can share their writing and get some feedback from the partner. I like to set up partners for the length of the unit so that students can build that friendship that good writing partners need.
Yes, all of this takes modeling and practice.
This week I did a small experiment with two of my students who are learning English. I asked them first to write about a movie and I gave them five minutes to write. Then, I had each one tell us about a book that they liked. Here is a picture of their answers. I added a word count to each text.
Sure there is lots to work on with their English, but look at the difference in language production! Oral rehearsal is definitely worth the effort.
Teachers, at times, argue about silly things. Years ago I walked into a classroom and into heated discussion that pitted Bloom’s Taxonomy against Webb’s Depth of Knowledge. (Really, I did!) While there were teachers on either side of the discussion, they were all arguing for the same thing: Good Questions! After listening for a while, our literacy coach wondered aloud, “How about using both to get the students think in lots of different ways about many different ideas?”
That’s the ticket! Let’s use the ideas of Bloom and Webb to motivate student thinking, speaking, and writing. If you haven’t revisited Bloom and Webb in a while, now might be a good time to review the questions you ask, think about your wait time, and consider who does most of the talking in your class. (Someone once told me that the person in class who is talking is the one who is doing the learning. It was probably that same literacy coach).
The resources (click on the pictures) are tools to get you thinking and to get your students thinking. Have high expectations for your students and they will rise to the challenges that you scaffold for them. All students can and do learn. We can help them.
“You’ll know it when you see it,” was obscenity defined. If you have to ask the lawyers then integrity’s declined. Unequal almost everything shows justice isn’t blind. Clearly there’s some clarity distinctly undefined.
On a recent trip to Minnesota, a friend and I met for coffee and conversation. As part of the conversation we, as we often do, discussed our reading and writing. We shared suggestions for awesome reads, quick reads, reads to avoid, … Then we discussed writing.
To make a longer story shorter, we came to an agreement: In one year we will return to the same coffee shop, each one with a manuscript for the other to read. Yep, we’re gonna write some books!
Why am I telling you this? It keeps me honest and helps me with accountability- if I tell the world I am going to write a book then I will, most likely, write a book. Now, just so you know, there was no agreement as to length or quality; we did not discuss genre or publishing. One could write a 700 page fantasy or a 30 page poetry chap book. And, if for some reason we don’t write, we will still meet for coffee and conversation.
As we work to systematize the writing work we do in Middle School, we decided to start a new website: Middle School Writing Lab. It will be a constant work in progress (and it was only started last Thursday so, keep that in mind). I hope to include in each section:
I am looking for that sweet spot between “formula” and “stream of consciousness.” I want writers to use their personal voice while accomplishing the task at hand. If you have any amazing resources please send them my way. Let’s Write!