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.

Student Orchestra

Remembering the Power of Writing & Reading: Reflections from Jordan

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A few days after putting up my last post mourning what feels like the dashed dreams of the Standards and the return of scripted reading programs, I found myself on a plane bound for Jordan with two remarkable women: Mary Ehrenworth, the Deputy Director of the Teachers College Reading & Writing Project and co-author of numerous books on teaching including Pathways to the Common Core and (with yours truly) The Power of Grammar, and Katherine Bomer, consultant extraordinaire and the author of Writing a Life and Hidden Gems: Naming and Teaching the Brilliance in Every Student’s Writing.

AmmanOnce there I had the incredible opportunity to work alongside Mary and Katherine and three amazing Jordanian educators from the Queen Rania Teacher Academy, Taraf Ghanem, Jumana Jabr, and Maysoon Massoud, as they, in turn, worked with teachers from schools in and around Amman. All were committed to bringing writing workshop to the children of Jordan. And all took on that work with a passion and dedication that was moving and inspiring to see–though, sadly, for me it was also ironic. Here was a country embarking on a journey which the U.S. is seemingly turning away from: helping students feel the power of language to move hearts and change minds by empowering them to become authors whose words and voice and subject matter were of their own making and choosing.

Jordanian students face the same kind of high-stake tests that American students do. In fact, the tests they take as they finish high school will determine whether they can go on to college, thus fixing the paths of their lives. And they will have to complete much of that test in a second language, English. Yet these educators believe, as Mary, Katherine and I do, that they will serve their students best if, rather than drilling them for the test from an early age, they invite them to feel what Christopher Vogler, the author of The Writer’s Journey, describes as the magic of writing. “Just think,” he writes:

We can make a few abstract marks on a piece of paper in a certain order and someone a world away and a thousand years from now can know our deepest thoughts . . . . Our stories have the power to heal, to make the world new again, to give people metaphors by which they can better understand their own lives.

We could feel the students harnessing that magic in the pieces students shared in their classrooms and their teachers brought to our sessions, such as this excerpt from a beautifully written and illustrated narrative from one of the students in teacher Nawal Qawasmeh’s class:

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You can feel it, too, in this persuasive essay from another one of Nawal’s students who, without being taught what an argument was, let alone a claim or a stance, expressed herself in a second language with passion and poignancy:

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These students will eventually have to learn how to cite evidence and elaborate more, as well as develop a repertoire of other craft and rhetorical moves. But I believe those skills can be mastered more easily once they have felt how the words of their hearts can transcend the particulars of time and place to affect a reader deeply. They will also benefit by reading more widely–or as Gary Paulsen says in a quote I shared with many of the teachers, they must learn “to read like the wolf eats.”

The DotUnfortunately, in Jordan that is a challenge because books in public schools are in short supply, both in Arabic and English. And to try to address that in some small way, Mary, Katherine and I all brought books along with us. Mary shared Eve Bunting’s Fly Away Home and poems by Rachel Pastan and Naomi Shihab Nye as a way of introducing teachers to the idea of close reading. Katherine read—and acted out—The Dot by Peter Reynolds, the story of a little girl who develops an identity and sense of agency as an artist when her teacher elevates the dot she drew to a work of art, in order to demonstrate the power of conferences that are built on student strengths, not deficits. And I brought a few dozen child-size board books about animals, dinosaurs and elves, which I passed out to the Bedouin children who worked with their families at the ancient site of Petra.

Boy on DonkeyThe Gift of Books (Boy Walking)

Seeing the children’s reactions to the books brought home in the simplest but most profound way that while reading and writing are, indeed, skills, they are also priceless gifts. They bind us together. They keep us alive. They nourish our minds and our souls, giving voice to our deepest dreams and desires and reminding us both of the marvels of the world and what it means to be human. Having students practice those skills without feeling the power and magic they hold, as some of the Common Core programs seem to do, drains the life out of reading and writing and risks turning those vital, life-sustaining acts into something mechanical and dry. The teachers in Jordan, however, are working hard to set those skills within that deeper, more meaningful context–and you could see the pay-off of that hard work in their students’ faces as they proudly showed us their writing.

Students from Soof

Finally once I got back home, I serendipitously stumbled on these words of advice from Barry Lopez‘s wonderful children’s book Crow and Weasel

“The stories people tell have a way of taking care of them. If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive.”

The stories I had the privilege to read and hear from the teachers and children of Jordan fed me as much as the wonderful platters of hummus and kabobs did. And having those stories come to me, I’m passing them on because I think that we need them in these challenging times. We need them because they remind us that reading and writing can do more than make students ready for college or jobs. They can help us find meaning in whatever we do as we try to forge meaningful lives. And they can connect us, beyond culture and place, to the humanity we all hold in common.

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A Feast of Inspiration: Some Choice Morsels from NCTE

While I couldn’t quite manage to get this out before the turkey was carved, I’d like to give my thanks this week to the amazing educators I had the privilege of hearing at last week’s NCTE convention and to share some of their incredible thinking with those who couldn’t be there. The theme of this year’s convention was Dream, Connect, Ignite, but in most of the sessions I attended there seemed to be another theme lying just below the surface: a dream that by connecting we could ignite a movement to push back against the forces of standardization that threaten to engulf us.

This came through loud and clear in the keynote address by educator and creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson, who expanded on the ideas from his famous Ted Talk on “Changing Education Paradigms” (which can be seen in this wonderful animated version by RSA Animates). According to Robinson, our current educational system is not only out-dated, it’s built on three principles—conformity, compliance, and linear thinking—which are diametrically opposed to the very qualities that make human beings vibrant and vital: creativity, diversity, and ways of thinking that are organic and highly personal. And it’s precisely these last three qualities that he thinks schools need to foster and embrace.

Creativity, diversity and personalized thinking were on center stage in a knock-out (and hilarious) session by Kathy Collins, Stephanie Parsons, Matt Glover and Ginny Lockwood, who explored different aspects of choice and ownership. Kathy looked at how, even in an education system narrowed by the confines of conformity, we, as teachers, still have some choice in what we attend to and ask students to do. And Ginny, picking up on that thread, made a passionate plea for choosing to create classrooms in which students are not simply ‘doing’ school—i.e., compliantly completing our assignments—but are truly and deeply ‘being’ in school, with mind, body and soul fully present.

To see what that could actually look like, Stephanie shared clips of her fourth grade students discussing topics of their own choice (in this case, whether money solved problems or made them worse) in what they had dubbed the “Circle of Talkingness”. And she celebrated what she called the “little healthy chaos”—i.e., the messiness that inevitably comes when we choose not to make our students conform to linear ways of thinking. Then Matt shared the amazingly diverse and highly personal ways second grade students incorporated what they had learned from an author study of Cynthia Rylant into writing pieces whose genre they had chosen themselves; and he offered other ways of giving students more choice in what they were going to make within the framework of non-genre specific units. Then the session ended with a rousing reading of my new favorite picture book Prudence Wants a Pet by Cathleen Daly, whose main character, as you can see below, is the epitome of a creative, unique thinker.

I also had the opportunity to hear Randy and Katherine Bomer speak along with professor Allison Skerrett and high school teacher Deb Kelt in a session entitled “Building on Strengths: Teaching English as if Adolescents Already Knew What They Were Doing.” In each speaker’s own unique, diverse way, they shared examples of “appreciative” curricula and teaching, which acknowledges, honors and builds on the experience and capabilities of students, instead of seeing them as deficient because they don’t conform to some norm. Kicking off the session, Randy looked at how deficit language, which sends out the subliminal message to students that they’re lacking or unable, can creep into our teaching talk even when we don’t intend it to; while Katherine suggested a writing conference move inspired by improvisational comedian Stephen Colbert: saying “Yes, and . . . ” to students instead of “No, but . . .” as a way of framing whatever follows around student strengths instead of deficits.

And finally, in perhaps the most subversive talk, I saw middle school teacher and cartoonist David Finkle share a comic strip presentation called “Pay Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain,” which used the scene from The Wizard of Oz to question the bluster and wisdom of the wizard behind the curtain of the Common Core Standards. My favorite part? After hearing the wizard, a.k.a. David Coleman, say that “people don’t really give a shit about what you feel or what you think,” (as he actually did during a presentation to the New York State Department of Education), a puzzled student asks his teacher, “But don’t authors want us to feel something?”

Needless to say, I came away inspired to focus on what both we and the students we work with can do, instead of what they can’t, in ways that push back on the conformity, compliance and linear thinking that this David Finkle cartoon so brilliantly captures. And for that, I’m astoundingly thankful.