Learning by Doing: What We Discover When We Do the Tasks We Assign to Students


For those of us who like to ground our writing instruction in mentor texts—i.e., letting students read and study great examples of the kind of writing they’ll be doing—the Common Core Standards pose some problems, especially when it comes to the kind of textual analysis the Standards seem to emphasize. Writing standard 9, for instance, which begins in the fourth grade, asks students to “draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection and research” with reference to a particular reading literature or information text standard. Many interpret this as pure academic writing of the sort that would address the kind of performance-based task prompts that are listed in the Common Core’s Appendix B. These are specifically aimed at demonstrating proficiency in one or more reading standards, with the teacher usually being the sole audience—and there’s not exactly a ton of great samples of that kind of writing out there.

Default ButtonThis lack of mentor texts frequently leaves students without a clear vision of what this kind of writing might look and sound like. And it often encourages us as teachers to default to some preconceived and often formulaic notions about structure and organization that ConversationEducation blogger and educator Tomasen Carey calls mortifying myths and ridiculous rules in her post on “Miss-Interpretations of the Common Core and Teaching Writing.” So to make this kind of writing more concrete for students and teachers alike, I’ve started asking the teachers I work with (and myself, as well) to try to write the tasks we design to meet particular standards—and virtually every time we do this, we discover that our preconceived notions don’t actually hold much weight.

Hey World Here I Am CoverTake the group of fifth grade teachers I worked with who wanted their students to write an analysis aligned to Reading Literature Standard 9, which asks students to “compare and contrast stories in the same genre on their approaches to similar themes and topics.” To try it out ourselves we read two short texts that circled the same feminist theme: “Louisa’s Liberation” from Jean Little‘s Hey World, Here I Am!a deceptively simple text that requires far more thinking to get than its Lexile or reading level might suggest, and The Paper Bag Princess, Robert Munsch‘s gender bending fairy tale that I looked at in my post about theme.

When we first discussed the standard, the teachers all envisioned that the writing would take the form of a four-paragraph essay with the first paragraph introducing the purpose of comparing and contrasting the two texts, the second listing what was similar between them, the third the differences, and the fourth concluding with some final reflection or thoughts about both texts. But as you’ll see from mine below, when we tried it ourselves, both the structure and content looked different than what they’d envisioned.

Compare & Contrast Thematic Essay

In slightly different ways—and without discussing it beforehand—each of us did what I did above. Rather than introducing our purpose, we each went straight to what was thematically similar about the texts, then we each described in more detail how those similarities played out in the two texts, with one paragraph devoted to one text and another to the second. In the limited time we’d given ourselves, we did end with a paragraph that spoke to both texts, but we all kept the focus again on the similarities because they seemed more significant than the differences between the texts. And in that way, we automatically went for what was “deep and penetrating” versus what was “readily apparent” as the Making Thinking Visible authors I quoted in an early post on compare and contrast suggested we do whenever we engage in a particular thinking skill.

Poppleton IllustrationSimilarly, I worked with a group of fourth grade ESL teachers who wanted their students to write an analysis and reflection tied to Reading Literature Standard 2 as part of a unit on overcoming adversity. The standard asks students to “determine a theme of a story, drama or poem from the details in the text; summarize the test,” and initially the teachers thought that, given how new and potentially challenging the thinking around theme might be, they would only focus on the first half of the standard and let the summary go. When we tried to do it ourselves, however, with the story “Icicles” from Poppleton in Winter, which we thought might be a good entry point for those English Language Learners, every single one of us included what we decided to call a thematically focused summary (as you’ll see again in mine). By writing, we realized that the summary wasn’t actually a separate task; it was the way each of us showed how the theme was conveyed through the details of the story—though the summaries we wrote were different than the summaries we tend to teach.

Poppleton Essay

In each case, we deepened our own understanding of what this kind of writing could look like by doing it ourselves. And in each case we didn’t do what we imagined we’d teach students to do based on our preconceived notions. We also wound up with several mentor texts, which we were excited to share with the students so that they, too, could have a better idea of what this kind of writing could look like. And we had a clearer vision of what our instructional focus might be based on what we’d done as writers.

Of course, I’m still wrestling with how to make this particular kind of writing more meaningful for students. But to do that I think we’d have to breaking yet another mortifying myth and ridiculous rule that I broke myself: That there is no “I” in essays.

16 thoughts on “Learning by Doing: What We Discover When We Do the Tasks We Assign to Students

  1. Vicki,
    Another fascinating post. I couldn’t help but wonder if one reason that the differences didn’t appear with the texts about gender was because the actual writing task revealed itself to require a focus, or point, that you made. Putting in an “on the other hand” wouldn’t have served the argument you made. That doesn’t mean you didn’t contrast the texts as you read them, just that the differences didn’t rise to the level of the similarities. Teaching mechanistically (you MUST put in similarities and differences!) would have ruined that tight focus or, worse, caused the writer to not even recognize that s/he had a focus! Sometimes adding the differences advances the purpose, sometimes not. Our teaching HAS to include helping students understand the choices authors make to achieve their purpose. (And that sometimes we don’t know that purpose until the first draft is finished!)

    I’m reading NOTICE AND NOTE by Beers and Probst. I wonder if some of the their idea of an “intellectual community” might be part of the answer to “how to make this particular kind of writing more meaningful for students.” In the same way that kids can marvel at and try to emulate a LeBron dunk in the intellectual community of the court, establishing some level of appreciation for thinking and the beauty of ideas seems crucial, as is being able to practice and to gain prestige and competence doing tasks that are valued by others in the community. Of course, having an infrastructure (ESPN, the NBA, etc.) that supports the communities identities probably helps, too. 🙂 Hard to replicate that in a classroom…but can you imagine? Japan has “Living National Treasures” who are potters and poets…can classrooms? One thing I know, though, packaged programs won’t help to create intellectual communities.

    Thanks so much!

    • I haven’t dug into Notice and Note yet, but I have it with me at my mom’s. I’m excited to read about their “intellectual communities” and consider how to put that into place in the classroom!

    • Building classroom cultures around an appreciation for thinking and the beauty of ideas is so, so important, along with sending out a message to students that you should expect nothing less than truly understanding. Too often, though, I fear we build classrooms around skills, which I think is why we often miss the mark with those compare and contrast essays. We’re asking kids to practice the skill, not using the construct to think more deeply about what’s important, weighing the similarities against the differences to consider what’s really significant. And, yes, we don’t often know that until the first draft is finished–which happens to me more often than not when I sit down to write a blog post! But that process isn’t always acknowledged in the idea of performance-based tasks, which I hate. In fact, I’ll come right out and say I hate the word task, which sounds too much like a chore to me, not something you feel passion or urgency about.

      But . . . on an entirely different note: Fourth grade! I think you’ll it!

      • Vicki! About fourth grade. I’m excited for the change! New stuff to think about is always good for my brain.

        I love your distinction between “skills based” and…I’m not sure what to call a classroom that is built around doing something more authentic? I’ve come to think of that as being about a task-based, or project-based, or learning-focused classroom…yet I completely get your point about the word “task.” In education, we have all too much “have to” and not enough joy. However, I don’t want to cede the word task entirely to drudgery and lack of choice. Maybe it’s my Midwestern US upbringing, but I want to reclaim joy in doing tasks. Like the Zen potters of Japan, I’ve often “found myself” (made my own artful life) through tasks that I’ve needed to accomplish either by tweaking the “have to” into something that is meaningful to me, living in the moment of the task to see where it brings me, or by altering the task (project?) so I can be closer to where I want to be. A task becomes onerous when I can’t find myself in it. (Some tasks are more onerous than others!) As a teacher, I guess I might be an environment creator, a task generator. Maybe I need to remember that my teaching task is to create environments, generate tasks that help and allow students (and me!) to “find” ourselves with increasing frequency, to set the expectation (as you put it) for true understanding and engagement. But, then again, maybe that’s all just Midwestern Zen happy talk! 🙂

        I suspect Reggio thinks differently about all this stuff.

        Too often (I know we agree on this) teaching becomes shoveling the daily skill listed on the board into kids. Finding oneself isn’t a goal, or even desirable in that kind of setting. And that’s onerous!

      • At some point along this crazy year, I lost the notebook I had in Reggio with all my precious notes and quotes. But I think they thought of teachers as “learning designers,” which seems quite similar to your idea of being an environment creator–i.e., you design or create a context or environment, which you believe will allow students to take a next step in whatever learning they’re engaged in. The context or environment that you design allows the students to make discoveries–without you telling them, which is definitely key in Reggio, as is a whole different notion of constitutes readiness. They spend a lot of time thinking about what next steps children might be ready to take, not what someone has pre-determined they should take, which, at its worst, is what the CCS is all about.

        And as for tasks–your comment sent me back to the novel I wrote for the second time this week, after not having looked at it for quite a while, in order to dig up this: “This is what work can do: take you out of yourself then bring you back again, renewed and redeemed by a task undertaken and brought round to completion, by gestures repeated again and again until they accrue a burnished grace.” It was something I had a character think, though it certainly suggests that I might, in fact, not hate tasks quite as much as I said earlier–only those I can’t find myself in.

      • “This is what work can do: take you out of yourself then bring you back again, renewed and redeemed by a task undertaken and brought round to completion, by gestures repeated again and again until they accrue a burnished grace.”

        This is beautiful. “Redeemed by a task. By gestures repeated. Burnished grace.” Thank you.

  2. Well this just made my day!! Thank you for the Ping! ( I know that sounds very personal somehow…but you can Ping me anytime!!)
    This post is so right on!! This is my philosophy in teaching on so many levels. What if all teachers always did the assignments they ask of kids? It would be a different world!!
    This is one of the underlying beliefs of our Learning Through Teaching in that we always have our teachers writing and reading because in order to truly understand the process one must go through it themselves. It also allows each writer to see the different choices made amongst writers as well as the moves that writers make to understand!!
    Thanks again Vicki!!

    • Sorry it’s take me so long to reply, Tomansen, I’ve been swamped! Clearly, though, I adored your post on all those ridiculous rules–as well as the one more recently on the art of teaching. Of course, if we truly honored the art of teaching and the insights teachers gain by doing themselves what they ask of kids, we’d give them much more time to plan and meet and talk. What a better use of money that would be than buying packaged programs that too often re-enforce those ridiculous rules and reductive thinking–because the program writers haven’t done the work they’re asking of students either.

    • Of course I don’t mind, Kim. It’s why I put it up. I’d be curious, though, to know whether the same thing happens with the teachers you work with–especially if you, too, all see the stark difference between how we tend to teach compare and contrast writing and what we actually do when we write it ourselves. That and the way we approach and use summaries were the big take aways I found after doing this with different groups of teachers in different schools over the year.

  3. Vicki,
    Since you posted this I’ve been wondering how you’ve been thinking about teaching the kind of focused summary you discovered was necessary for the kind of writing you were doing. It makes perfect sense to me that the summary wants to be focused on the point(s) that the writing makes, which seems like a difficult move to make and to teach. It requires knowing what you want to say, that evidence lead you there, and how to cut out the less important details from the more important ones, without losing the gestalt of the piece. Probably more things to think about, too! I’m sure you must have thought about how you’d approach such a thing. (Having mentor texts would be useful, I’m sure.)

    On the other hand, perhaps having a “reason” to include what is included (e.g. details that advance a perspective or argument) might actually make writing the summary somewhat easier? Just thinking…

    Are you going to posting on the thinking that went into that next step sometime? If so, I’m all ears!

    • Unfortunately, Steve, the way my work works, I wound up in that school for the planning piece but not the implementation, so I’m not exactly sure what that looked like. But here’s two things that I have done that I think are pieces of summary puzzle. (You’re making me think I should write a post on it, but I’ll give you the short version here.) In the school where we wrote the the compare and contrast pieces ourselves, we tried to tease apart what reading vs. writing issues were involved with students whose written work didn’t seem to make the mark. I met with two small groups of 5th graders: one of below grade-level readers and another who were at grade level or beyond, and in each group we read “Louisa’ Liberation” from Hey World, Here I Am! In each case, through talk, both groups were able to circle the big ideas or themes in the piece, but when I asked them to then write about what they thought the author’s message was with evidence from the text (which were the terms their teachers had been using), the grade level kids did fine, and the below-level kids defaulted to retelling. Interesting, right?

      And here’s number two: A few years ago in the Poppleton school, I helped them implement a unit on book reviews, which also required a focused summary that didn’t give the whole book away. Many kids wrote retellings, and to help them make that move from a retell to a summary, I introduced the Somebody Wanted Something But template (minus the So, which would give away the end) as a way to get the gist of the plot (but not the theme, which was an option to write about later in the review). Then using one of the student’s retells as a model, I asked the class to think about what part to keep in and leave out in order to stay focused on that sentence, with me editing the piece according to their suggestions. The conversation was really great as they debated what to keep and get rid of–and why. And in the end we had a great summary.

      Combining those two, I think many kids need to keep the focus in mind by writing some kind of simple sentence that captures the thinking they were able to do orally, then use that as a lens to decide what to put in and what not to. I think they’d probably need to do that explicitly for a while, talking first to engage with meaning, writing a big idea sentence–not as a thesis but as a lens to help them focus–then using that sentence to help make decisions about what to put in and leave out. That does mean giving them a “reason,” as you said–which could also be thought of as a purpose. And if teachers write their own mentor texts, I think that kids could consider the purpose as part of the genre study to arrive at some idea, without us having to tell them–which I guess is how my thinking has evolved since I did that book review unit.

      • Thanks for your thinking, here! I’m hoping that you write a post on summaries like this, how real writing situations call for different types of summaries and why, what instructional decisions help us move toward that kind of understanding of summaries…

        Yes, it is interesting that the below grade level readers had a difficult time with writing those summaries. I wonder why…? Here’s a guess from my experience working with below grade level readers in my third grade situation. Some are below grade level for whatever neurological reasons that cause print to be difficult. That’s one group I work with often. But I’ve noticed that some others just plain have a difficult time with finding specific words, ideas, phrases to express themselves. You can hear a certain vagueness in their descriptions, stories, in their daily language. Probably lots of reasons for that. But what to do? In my case, I’m aware that I’ve “scaffolded” some readers too much, unconsciously providing words, ideas, etc. to fill in some of the vagueness that arises in conversation. As a teacher, I need to work on how to better help these readers / writers struggle through periods of vagueness toward more specificity of thought and language. If it’s true that I’m sometimes providing too much, then whatever develops, even from a discussion that feels productive to me, hasn’t been owned by them so isn’t available for them to use. Instead, I’ll hear: “What was that we were talking about?” or they will fall back on a the kind of “beads on a string” type retelling, where one detail from the text calls forth the next detail. (I think that phrase comes from Bereiter and Scardamalia’s concept of “knowledge-telling”, but I can’t remember.)

        At any rate, one thing the above scenario highlights for me is how crucially circular this whole reading / writing gig really is: Ideas get formed through words; words get formed through ideas. Vagueness in one area helps contribute to lack of clarity in the other. So, a tough nut, but interesting.

        As always, thanks for sharing your thinking out loud like this!

  4. Such a great post! When I taught in an international school, we commented on how our students’ projects would have been easier to guide if we had anticipated the trouble spots – and we’d more easily identify trouble spots if we did the projects ourselves first.

    Then we ran into the time factor. It took so much effort to plan the unit and organise materials, we didn’t have time to follow through with the project. Perhaps those should be done over the summer :).

    • Thanks, Janet! My hunch is that places like Finland actually carve out time for that kind of planning, which Matt Glover calls Projecting Possibilities–or planning for what you can’t know. But I’m reminded that in one of those schools I described in the post, I focused a lot on writing one year, and they saw me repeatedly regroup and rethink when those trouble spots emerged during the unit. So I think that if we’re continually engaged with ongoing formative assessment, and constantly looking at what kids are taking away from the instruction we give, there’s time and room within the unit to come at something that the kids aren’t getting from another angle. It does mean, though, that we have at least a vision of what we’re hoping they’ll do, which I think is half the battle–which is why mentor texts are so great. And we have to be willing not to march through lessons whether kids are with us or not.

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