SWBAT Read the Learning Targets from the Board

Hit the target

As other educational bloggers, such as Grant Wiggins and the teacher behind “TeachingTweaks,” have noticed, lesson plans are filled these days with learning objectives and targets, which spell out what students supposedly will be able to (SWBAT) do by the end of the lesson. These objectives and targets, most of which refer to specific standards, are also often written on white boards or posted on classroom charts, and teachers and/or students often read them aloud before the lesson starts.

In addition to proving to the powers that be that we’re aligning our instruction to the Standards—and have clear objectives in mind—I think this practice is intended to make the work of reading more visible to students. As anyone who’s read What Readers Really Do knows, I think it’s critical to make the invisible work of reading visible. But saying that you can do something doesn’t necessarily ensure that you can, as I’ve been recently seeing. Or put another way, talking the talk doesn’t mean that you can walk the walk.

Esperanza_Rising CoverHere, for instance, is what happened in a school that was thinking the same very same thing. They’d adopted Expeditionary Learning, which was one of the reading programs New York City had recommended last year as being Common Core ready. But while the teachers loved some things about it (especially some of the protocols), they weren’t sure what the kids were really getting. And so one day I found myself in a 5th grade class that was reading Esperanza RisingPam Munoz Ryan‘s wonderful book about a young, pampered Mexican girl whose life is completely turned upside down when, after her father is killed, she and her mother flee to California where they become farm laborers. The class was up to Lesson 10, which focused on the chapter called “Las Papas (Potatoes)” and included the following learning targets:

Esperanza Rising Targets 10

According to the lesson plan, the students would meet these targets through the following activites:

  • taking a short comprehension quiz
  • summarizing the chapter
  • discussing the meaning of the title
  • reviewing their “Inferring by Using Text Clues” and “Metaphors and Themes in Esperanza Rising” chart
  • rereading a passage in the chapter using evidence flags to answer and discuss, both in triads and whole class, nine right-or-wrong-answer text-dependent questions
  • adding notes to the character T-charts in their workbooks, and
  • writing a short constructed response to a prompt about how Esperanza was changing

As you may have found yourself thinking as you read that, I thought there was simply too much going on, with too much of it disconnected. And having been invited to take liberties with the lesson, I decided to focus it instead on how writers use and develop metaphors to show us how characters change. And rather than following the lesson script, which instructed me to begin the class by “reviewing the learning targets with students by reading them out loud,” I instead simply asked the class what they thought a metaphor was.

Pin DroppingYou could hear the proverbial pin drop in the room, so I asked everyone to think about a metaphor in the book they’d talked about before, then to turn and talk to share with a partner what they thought a metaphor could be, even if they weren’t quite sure. This at least got everyone talking, and amid their uncertainty we did hear a few students say something about comparing.

Their memory banks kicking in more when I clicked on the following slide, which represented some of the metaphors that appeared on their “Metaphors and Themes” chart. They were sure that the image on the top left was Abuelita’s blanket, whose zigzag pattern was like mountains and valleys that represented the ups and downs of life.

Esperanza Rising Metaphors

This is stated pretty explicitly earlier in the book, when Esperanza’s grandmother Abuelita says,

“Look at the zigzag of the blanket. Mountains and valleys. Right now you are in the bottom of the valley and your problems loom big around you. But soon, you will be at the top of the mountain again.”

And for me that raised the question: Had they learned that the blanket was a metaphor for life either because it was so explicit or the teachers had led them there, or had they really learned how to think about metaphors in a deeper way?

Since the blanket featured prominently in Chapter 10, I wanted to see if the students could think more deeply about its role in the story. And to do that, I put the students in groups and gave each group a piece of chart paper (wanting also to break out from the workbooks with their worksheets and graphic organizers). I then read the following page in two chunks, asking the students to talk about what Pam Munoz Ryan might be trying to show them about the meaning the blanket, then to write down some of their thoughts on the paper and illustrate it in some fashion.

Esperanza Rising excerpt

For the first chunk, which ended with the words “Mama’s lungs,” different groups noticed different things. Some, for instance, thought about what the blanket must mean to Mama, who was so ill she barely could speak. Others thought it might be important that Esperanza had seemingly forgotten about it, while still others noted that the dust had gotten into both Mama’s lungs and the trunk and they talked about what that might mean, which led them to consider how the blanket and Mama’s lungs might be similar.

CrochetingWith the second chunk, many were reminded of how Abuelita would weave her own hair into the blanket, which made it seem to mean even more—almost like a stand-in for Abuelita herself. And some noted how the blanket held the scents of both smoke and peppermint, as if it contained both the good and bad memories from their life in Mexico. And all this made them feel the significance of the moment when Esperanza, who’d expressed no interest in crocheting before, takes up her grandmother’s crochet needles and starts to finish the blanket.

Of course, with all the thinking, talking, writing, drawing and sharing out, this took a fair amount of time. But there was just time enough to ask one more question: “Do you think you learned anything about metaphors today?” And this time the kids had lots to say:

“We learned that sometimes things mean more than they are.”

“A metaphor can mean more than one thing and its meaning can change.”

“A metaphor is a thing that means more than what it is.”

“Sometimes the writer tells you what it means, but sometimes you have to figure it out by thinking about other parts of the book.”

I think the truth is that if we’re truly asking for deeper thinking and understanding, we can’t know we’ll get it for sure until we see or hear it. And we can’t expect to hit our targets without giving students lots of time to practice. If we thinking otherwise, we’re fooling ourselves—and we’re misleading our students.

9 thoughts on “SWBAT Read the Learning Targets from the Board

  1. To me, one of the biggest differences between what I imagine was in the scripted curriculum and what you did came when you gave them the big sheets of blank paper instead of the proscribed worksheets. That showed that you thought the children were able to share some original thinking of value and that you would be listening to what they said – and that they should be listening to what each other were saying – rather than just measuring how close or far it sat from the answer you wanted them to give.
    Another great post, Vicki: Thanks!

  2. Vicki, this is a very timely post for me to be reading now.

    I’ve been stuck between two horns of a dilemma. One horn is a (probably somewhat legitimate) nudge (push/mandate) to teachers (I am one) to have learners know what their learning goals are and be able to articulate them. The other horn is my own experience that the best learning happens in a much more holistic manner that involves the creation of a kind of meaning that can’t always (or often) be known ahead of time.

    In both instances, I think, learners need to start out knowing why they have gathered to dedicate part of their lives to the event (that’s only fair!), and by the end learners need to know what they’ve done and how they got there so they can develop an understanding of the deep structure of the event they have thought about. That growing knowledge of the event’s deep structure (in this case, the deep structure of how metaphors work to convey multiple meanings) is the source of learning transfer, it seems to me. I can use that knowledge in lots of different situations with lots of different “texts.”

    So, I guess I’m much more comfortable with a very general opening dedication to the task along the lines of what you did in this lesson: “Let’s take a look at this and see what it might mean”, coupled with ways to gather information (as you did with the blank page) about how that meaning is being constructed as we go so we can explore and prod our own learning. Along the way we can name what we did so we can transfer that new understanding to another situation.

    Sorry to be long-winded and obtuse, but I guess I’m translating this into what I understand about the learning process and I’m trying to figure out ways to teach that match what I have learned about that learning process, so thanks for the opportunity to think!

    • I completely agree that kids need to know why we’re spending time on something, but too I often I think ‘their’ learning goals are actually the goals that we have for them; they’re not really theirs at all. And I’m not sure how they develop their own goals if they don’t first have a deeper vision of the work, which perhaps we need to orchestrate for them before we start talking goals. Reminds me of a high school student I wrote about last year who wrote a response to a short story group experiment I designed. He confessed that he used to dread having to read—”almost like a punishment,” he wrote–but having the chance to choose a story to read and discuss open-ended with some classmates, he said he found himself wanting more. Not just more stories to read, he wrote, “I need more answers and meaning from literature.” I guess I’m not sure how kids develop goals that are authentic and meaningful until they experience truly meaningful work. Without that everyone stays on the surface, which is where the scripted Esperanza Rising lesson stayed.

      • I love what you have all written here. In the heady days of readers and writers workshop, so later 80s and early 90s, I used to talk about “in one ear, out the other education.” And how a workshop model brought kids into the world of ideas and thinking and noticing. When kids were supposed to be silent receptacles of our input via workbooks, practice sheets, multiple choice exercises etc. I knew that they were not going to reflect back on 5th grade and say, “Whew, page 93 in the skills book, that was a cool lesson, changed me as a learner!” I knew from my teaching that when we worked at the why and the kids had choice and were passionate and thought about what they were finding out and talked, there was much more growth and engagement. But also what is the goal? I want lifelong readers who love to read, and spend a lot of time doing it. I want them to be able to know at deeper levels, of course, but if we are honest, we know that lots of kids “cram” facts/info for tests and promptly forget what they supposedly learned/knew. I think all this focus on knowing which standard may sound like goobledy-gook to kids and really, at a young age, are they mature enough to really say, “gee this is good for me”? Yet these same kids would be able to engage with a book/story and talk about what they are thinking and noticing. And doing. Especially if the teacher/guide is following the advice Vicki and Dorothy give in What Readers Really Do. Learning to love books and wanting more. Yet continuing to think more deeply. The more we do things (practice) the better we get at them. (Though of course there is no linear path and our “best” is not the same as someone else’s.) Sometimes (and I have done this a lot in the past) I wonder about reading comprehension and thinking. Where is the line drawn between what someone can talk about and notice in “daily life” and what they are getting from a book…..

      • Love that phrase, “in one ear, out the other education.” I’ve been seeing its effects regularly at a struggling high school I’m working in this year, where kids who I know have been taught things like points of view, story elements, text structures, etc. have seemingly retained none of it. Some will say, “oh, yeah, I remember that,” when the teacher jumps in. But I have to imagine that this has to mean that none of it has seemed meaningful to them—which in turn means that we as teachers have failed to make it meaningful or not helped kids see how any of that helps them as readers, thinkers or human beings. And if it doesn’t do that, why do we spend some much time on those things? You’ll see more on this theme in this week’s post, but for now thanks, as always, for stopping by and sharing your thoughts. It so affirms my belief that we all gain so much when people share their diverse ways of explaining and thinking about things, rather than conform to some standardized language.

  3. Vicki,
    When I read the initial lesson objectives, I could hardly keep it straight. There is so much there. I feel as we hurry our students along those planned paths, holes are created. Holes they fall through and make next steps impossible. Time and listening to what they really get seems necessary.

    I read this post before Friday’s lesson and it changed the path I took. I gave students chart paper and markers to record their thinking. They drew, wrote, talked and in the end I saw a picture of what they got out of the text. Most were shy of what I wanted them to come to. This time it was main idea. Some were focusing on a detail, others were jotting everything trying to come to terms with their thinking and some actually put a clear idea together. That idea might not have been completely on the mark, but the progression toward the target was clear to me. The trick is making that target clear to them. In many cases they honestly don’t know what it is they are suppose to be getting to. Perhaps there are targets along the progression to shoot for that speaks to each student’s next step. When the target is murky it’s no wonder they miss.

    As always, thanks for adding to my thinking and teaching.

    • I always feel a little bad when I trash one of these programs, especially in this case because I think Expeditionary Learning does much good in the world but, in their desire to meet the state’s insane interpretation of the CCSS, they took a wrong turn. And with a list that long in every single lesson, it’s hard to imagine what the kids really get. As for your class the other Friday, I’ve been finding that it really makes a difference if we ask kids what they think the writer wanted them to understand, versus what’s the main idea or the important details. Those latter things feel determined by someone else, which I think accounts for insecurity that might be behind the shyness, whereas the former positions kids to have a relationship as readers with the writer—i.e., it takes into account both the writers words and the students’ understanding of those words. And I think main idea is one of those things (like the ones I just listed in my response to Janet) that kids are inherently murky about. Is it really what an article is ‘mostly’ about, which seems to invite thinking that’s reductive? And why is knowing that important? I fear that we, as teachers, haven’t done a good job of making kids feel the importance, so that, to them it’s just a skill for a skill’s sake, which depending on how intrinsically motivated or engaged you are, might not be enough to make it matter.

  4. Pingback: Don’t Box Me In: More Thoughts on Worksheets and Graphic Organizers | To Make a Prairie

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