From Demonstration to Orchestration: Some Thoughts on Mini-Lessons

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Last week I read a piece in The New Yorker titled “Slow Ideas” by the surgeon and writer Atul Gawande, whose articles about medicine seem full of implications about teaching and learning to me. In this piece, for instance, Gawande looks at how to speed the spread of important innovations, such as institutionalizing hygienic hospital practices in order to avoid infections, and along the way he discovers something that I think has implications for mini-lessons: that people are most prone to lastingly learn things not if they’ve seen it demonstrated by an expert but if they’ve had the chance to try to do it themselves.

Rockin' Reading WorkshopThe by-now standard structure of a mini-lesson has the teacher explicitly naming a teaching point that’s connected to the unit of study, then modeling it as students watch. This is followed by a few minutes of active engagement, where students are invited to participate, sometimes by trying out the teaching point themselves or sharing what they saw the teacher doing. Then there’s a link that acts as a segue to independent reading, where students are explicitly or implicitly expected to apply what’s been taught in their independent reading book.

I can’t say enough about how important it was to me, in my own practice, to become adept at articulating a clear, concise teaching point, which this mini-lesson structure forced me to do. I learned an incredible amount doing that—sometimes, I believe, more than the students watching those lessons did. For while there are certainly stellar exceptions, I often see students zoning out as teachers—including me—demonstrate, and too often I don’t really see students transferring what’s been taught into independent reading.

As I explored in an earlier post on the pros and cons of modeling, this may be because of the passive nature of watching someone else do something—especially if it’s not something you’re burning to know. It might also be that the time allotted to active engagement simply isn’t enough for many students to get the teaching point—let alone to see what it can do for them as readers, which might motivate more students to transfer the thinking. Furthermore I think that all of this is compounded by the practice of teaching a new mini-lesson every day, regardless of whether students got what was previously taught or not, which may unintentionally send out the message that we don’t really expect you to understand.

Confucius Quote 2The ideas I explored last week from Matt Glover and Mary Alice Berry’s “Planning for What You Can’t Know,” specifically address this last issue by encouraging teachers to be flexible and responsive to student needs. But what about the mini-lesson itself? For a while now I’ve done my most critical teaching not during independent reading but during read aloud (or a hybrid of read aloud and shared reading, where I project or provide students with a copy of the text). And while I often begin that with a teaching point, I’m more likely to set students up to practice it, rather than demonstrate it myself—knowing that, as Gawande (and Confucius) said, the learning will be more meaningful and lasting that way.

IThe Name Jarn the example I shared in that post about modeling, I set the students up to read The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi by asking them to try to do what readers usually do in their heads whenever they begin a book: They try to keep track of what they’re learning and what they’re wondering about both because beginnings can be confusing and because they know that some of what they’re curious about will be answered as the story unfolds. And to help them make that work visible, I used a text-based Know/Wonder chart to keep track of their thinking.

Unlike the teaching points found in many mini-lessons, this wasn’t exactly a strategy or skill, though it positioned the students to employ many strategies and skills we might otherwise teach separately as they automatically—and authentically—started questioning, monitoring their own comprehension, and connecting details within the text to infer everything from the character’s nationality to the problems she faced. And moving the main teaching point from independent reading to the read aloud gives students more time and space to wrestle with meaning by engaging in what Gawande calls in another great article “‘deliberate practice’—sustained, mindful efforts to develop the full range of abilities that success requires.” It also gives us a window into different students’ minds, which can help us and students in several ways.

By studying The Name Jar, for instance, I was aware that there were several problems readers had to tackle in the first few pages, including navigating a flashback, which, as you can see below, is signaled only by small textual clues that include a subtle shift in verb tense.

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I anticipated that that might be tricky for some students, which it proved to be, as students had different views on where and when things were happening. But rather than solving the problem for them by either confirming the ‘right’ answer or explaining the time shift myself, I asked a student to explain her thinking, which accomplished several things. The student who walked the class through her thinking benefited in ways that are described in a recent Education Week article called “Students Can Learn By Explaining,” which cites new research that shows that “students who can verbally explain why they arrived at a particular answer [are] more able to catch their own incorrect assumptions and generalize what they learn to other subjects”—or, in this case, other texts. The number of ‘ah’s’ heard in the room also meant that other students were listening and now saw what she had seen (though anticipating that here might be problems here, I already had a small group lesson up my sleeve that would give the students I could now identify more time to practice this kind of thinking).

Additionally as I noticed and named what that student had done in more general terms, we’d arrived, as a class, at another teaching point: that writers sometimes signal a shift from the present to the past through small words and clues like “had said” and “remembered,” and so readers try to attend to those clues in order to not get lost. This teaching point and the other about keeping track of what we’re learning and wondering about could now be imported to independent reading where, instead of modeling, we could remind students of what they’d already done, how they’d done it, and how it had helped them as readers. Building the mini-lesson around student thinking this way not only builds on strengths instead of deficits, it also ensures that time-wise the lesson stays mini so that students have more time to read, without being shortchanged on the time really needed to experience the thinking work first hand.

And if and when I do see the need to model, the students are more apt to see the need for it, too, because they’ve developed a different sense of themselves as thinkers and readers—having played the notes of the symphony themselves.

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To Model or Not To Model: That Is the Question

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In addition to the numerous treats I shared from this year’s NCTE convention, I also had the privilege of hearing Ellin Keene talk about talk—specifically about what kind of teacher talk enhances or impedes student understanding. Drawing on some of the work from her most recent book Talk About Understanding, she shared some trends and patterns she’d noticed during a year she spent viewing and analyzing teachers’ talk in classrooms. Among the things she noticed and named that all too often we do were the following:

    • Cut students off before they have a chance to fully develop their thinking
    • Accept students’ first thoughts without probing for deeper thinking
    • Move on before we label students’ descriptions of thinking (i.e., naming for them what they’re doing) so that the thinking can be transferred
    • Segue from modeling to student responsibility too quickly

The first three points I see all the time—and have been guilty of doing myself. And seeing them named so clearly reminds me of both the power of naming and the importance of giving students enough time to develop and test out their thinking. But the last point made me pause, because increasingly in my own practice, I’ve found myself moving away from explicit modeling in reading.

Mini LessonAs Dorothy Barnhouse and I both noticed and discussed in What Readers Really Do, when we model how readers use strategies through a think aloud, what students too often take away is what we thought, not how. And they can be left (as I sometimes am in the wake of a great think aloud) feeling dazzled but daunted. Additionally, a mini-lesson based on a “Today I’m going to teach you” teaching point, followed by a “Now watch me do it” demonstration and a “Now you do what I do” link puts students in a passive role and re-enforces a vision of student as empty vessels in need of teacher filling.

In his great book on teacher talk Choice Words, Peter Johnston shows how this positioning can have even more consequences, which he describes as the “hidden costs in telling people things”:

“If a student can figure something out for him- or herself, explicitly providing the information preempts the student’s opportunity to build a sense of agency and independence . . . When you figure something out for yourself, there is a certain thrill in the figuring. After a few successful experiences, you might start to think that figuring things out is something that you can actually do. Maybe you are even a figuring out kind of person . . . When you are told what to do, particularly without asking, it feels different. Being told explicitly what to do and how to do it—over and over again—provides the foundation for a different set of feelings and a different story about what you can and can’t do, and who you are.”

Peter Johnston2For Johnston, the key to learning isn’t explicit teacher modeling but student engagement. And from 2008 to 2010 he was involved in a research study that yielded compelling proof of that. As he shared in a recent blog post titled “Reducing Instruction, Increasing Engagement,” he and his colleague Gay Ivey looked at four 8th grade classrooms where the teachers decided to put engagement front and center by cutting back on explicit instruction and modeling and offering instead edgy young adult fiction with adolescent-relevant themes that the students could read without strings attached—i.e., no book reports or quizzes. The results? In addition to reading an average of 42 books a year and becoming more open, responsible and empathic, the students increased their standardized test scores, in some cases by more than 10%. (A paper on the study can be found here.)

In our current age of anxiety, however, where accountability and data collection rule, it’s hard to image this study being replicated in any systemic way. But what if instead of modeling, we moved students more quickly into problem-solving mode by orchestrating experiences for them that positioned them to feel the thrill of figuring things out?

This was what I did the other day in a fourth grade bilingual room that was embarking on a thematic unit of study about overcoming adversity. These were students who could easily be seen as deficient—who ‘couldn’t’ infer, ‘couldn’t’ summarize, ‘couldn’t’ find the main idea. But as we began to read Yangsook Choi‘s The Name Jarwithout a shred of modeling and no more support than a chance to turn and talk and a T-chart to record what they were learning and what they wondered about, their thinking was amazing.

The Name JarFrom the cover, they wondered what a name jar was, why the book was called that, who put the names in the jar and why, and was the girl putting something in or taking something out? With these questions in mind and their curiosity sparked, I started reading, pausing periodically to let them turn and talk and share out what they were thinking out.

What they noticed was that on almost every page, something about names came up: the girl’s grandmother gives her a wooden name stamp when she leaves Korea; children on the bus make fun of her name; she lies about her name to her classmates; the Korean grocer says her name is beautiful; and she tries out various American names as she brushes her teeth. They also had two more burning questions: Will she decide to change her name? and Will she manage to make friends?

As they wrestled with these questions half-way through the book, they demonstrated a deep understanding of the girl’s predicament in a way that also showed their ability to refer to details when explaining what the text said explicitly and when drawing inferences from it (Reading Literature Standard 4.1) and to draw on specific details from a text to describe in depth a character or event (RL. 4.3). They were also well on their way to determine a theme of a story from details in the text (RL.4.2)—and none of that had been explicitly taught or modeled (though I did ask them to share what made them think what they did and ended by naming the work they’d done).

It’s possible, of course, that what allowed them to do this was the explicit modeling their teacher had done. But what if, as Johnston and Ivey conclude of the students in their study, “Being fully engaged and facing problems, they became strategic”? What if they automatically generated strategies because they were invested in what they were reading, not because someone told them that’s what good readers do? And what if in delaying the release of responsibility, we risk becoming helicopter teachers, hovering over our students heads to make sure they get it right in a way that deprives them of the opportunity to learn by their mistakes?

For the record, I do keep explicit teaching and modeling in my toolkit of teaching moves. But it’s not automatically the tool I first pull out, because sometimes less is more.

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Helping Students Consider the Significance of Details with Wordless Books

As we saw last week when I shared the responses to Allen Woodman’s story “Wallet,” experienced readers invest much thought in considering the possible significance of a narrative’s details. To do this, they use many of the strategies we commonly teach in classrooms—they visualize, infer and question up a storm. But they use those strategies because they know something about the way narratives work that I think we teach far less often: that everything readers encounter in a text—from the title to the imagery to the lowliest detail—has been deliberately chosen by the author for a purpose. And a reader’s job is like a detective’s: We carefully attend to the details for clues in order to develop hunches and theories about what we think the author might be trying to showing us and exploring through those detail clues.

I believe it’s important that we share this knowledge with the students we teach and set whatever strategy work we do in the context of this understanding. The question, as always, in classrooms is how. We can, of course, present it as a teaching point in a mini-lesson, modeling how we ask ourselves questions like, “Why is the author showing me this?” and “What could this detail mean?” then demonstrating how we brainstorm possibilities and read on on the look-out for more clues. Over the years, though, I’ve come to believe that while this kind of think-aloud can certainly help some students, many more need to experience it themselves to truly ‘get’ it in a way that allows them to transfer the thinking to other texts.

This belief is supported by the research behind Learning Pyramids such as this one, which show how much students retain what’s taught according to the instructional method. You’ll see that, while 30% of students retain what’s been demonstrated, more than twice that many retain what they’ve been able to practice themselves. Because of this, I try to keep demonstrations short and move students from listening to practicing quickly so that, in this case, they can experience for themselves the purposefulness of an author’s choice of detail. That means that I need to be purposeful as well with my choice of text, finding one that allows students to engage in this work with a minimum of scaffolding and modeling. And that’s where wordless books come in.

Wordless books allow students to engage in the thinking work of meaning making without any of the decoding, vocabulary or syntax challenges of print. And they invite students to scrutinize the details in the pictures in the exact same way we want them to eventually scrutinize the details in print. There are many wonderful wordless picture books for lower school children, including the delightful Boy, Dog, Frog books by Mercer Mayer and virtually anything by David Wiesner. But for middle and even high school students, who often need experience with this thinking as well, my all-time favorite is Shaun Tan‘s amazing wordless book The Arrival

Everything about The Arrival is mysterious, from the antique-looking cover to the two title pages, one of which is in an unidentifiable language with a strange-looking alphabet. And then comes the first page, which looks like this:

Frequently students react with a “Huh?”, which seems like a perfectly reasonable response to such an opening—and is, in fact, a reasonable reaction to the beginnings of many narratives from Level M on up. But when asked to look carefully and share out what they notice, they begin to do what experienced readers do: They attend to the details and wonder what they might mean by connecting detail to detail and inferring. Many notice, for instance, the drawing in the center of the page and the picture in the lower right corner and wonder if they’re the same people. Some connect the suitcase to the one on the cover and wonder if that man is the same man here. And some notice the crack in the teapot and the chip on the cup and think that maybe these people are poor. And if so, maybe the fact that they’re poor has something to do with the suitcase and the title, which now takes on more significance.

As Dorothy Barnhouse and I suggest in What Readers Really Do, these wonderings and fledgling ideas are the students’ first-draft understanding of the text, which will go through many revisions as they encounter more details, connect them together and develop their ideas. And that process begins immediately as we turn the page and come to the next spread (where students have actually been known to gasp):

What had seemed so confusing just a page before suddenly takes on more meaning as the students infer that all of these objects belong to the couple in the earlier picture and that all but that picture, which has been tenderly wrapped and packed in the suitcase, will soon be left behind. From the gestures and expressions, they also infer that this is a sad occasion, though Tan brings back the origami bird a few pages later to suggest a different feeling and show us something about the man’s character and his relationship with the child.

Beyond being an extraordinary story, The Arrival helps students see how authors plant and use details to reveal everything from the characters to themes. And having seen and experienced that first hand here, they’re more primed to attend to details in a printed text than they’d be if they’d just observed a think-aloud. Additionally, having made this visible for students, we’re in a better position, as teachers, to remind them of that thinking work when we confer with them on their own reading. And if they’re beginning to take that work on, a conference offers students the perfect opportunity to teach us what they’re discovering as readers, which helps them retain this key understanding about how texts work even more.