Letting Students Be the Protagonists in Their Own Learning

Like many literacy educators, last year I found myself reading Visible Learning for Literacyby Doug Fisher, Nancy Frey and John Hattie. The book breaks down the process of teaching and learning into three phases: teaching for surface learning, deeper learning and ultimately for transfer. And for each phase, it recommends specific teaching practices based on their effect size, i.e., “the impact a given a approach has” on accelerating student learning.

Being someone who tends to want to get to the deep stuff right away, I was curious about what the authors had to say about surface learning, along with what practices pack the greatest punch. They believe that surface learning is the foundation on which deeper learning is built, and among the recommended practices for that phase, I saw direct instruction, which comes with an effect size of 0.59.

That led me to watch one of the videos that can be found on Corwin’s resource page for the book. If you go to the link, you’ll see a teacher providing direct instruction on how to punctuate dialogue to her 9th grade class. Clearly, she adheres to the features of direct instruction as stated in the book, but I couldn’t help thinking that something was wrong here. These were 9th graders who, I’d be willing to bet, had been taught to punctuate dialogue ever since third or second grade.

This seemed to be another case of students having been taught something they didn’t fully learn, which can happen for a number of reasons. They might not have had enough time to practice for the learning to take hold. They might not have found “correctness” important. Or, as I suggested last week, there might have been something in the top-down teaching practice that didn’t fully engage them because it didn’t positioning them to be protagonists in their own learning.

But what would that look like when it comes to something like punctuating dialogue?

It just so happens that I wrestled with that very question last year, as I worked with several schools whose upper grade teachers wanted to teach writing and punctuating dialogue in their narrative units. In each case, the teachers had noticed that their students didn’t know how to punctuate dialogue, despite it having been taught the year before.

So here’s what we did: I asked the teachers to gather up the mentor texts they’d used to help their students develop a vision of narrative writing. And among them was Maribeth Boelt’s popular book Those Shoesabout a boy who longs for the expensive sneakers that all the popular kids were wearing. Immediately we noticed that Boelt constructed her dialogue, using a variety of sentence structures— as in, it wasn’t always “___________,” I or a character said. That variety, which we recognized as a craft move, helped give the book its voice, and we also recognized that it presented the potential for an inquiry into how writers write dialogue.

To implement that, we decided to invite everyone to the rug to look at the following four samples from the book, which we projected on the SMART Board. I read each of the sentences out loud, then invited the kids to turn and talk, using the basic thinking routine I shared in another post, What do you notice and what do you make of what you noticed?

In a sense, you could call this a rich task, as it offered multiple points of entry for students to engage in their thinking. Of course, some students at first only noticed what seemed the most obvious to them: that what was being said made the sentences different. In those cases, I acknowledged that was true, but then asked them to take another look at just the first two sentences to consider if there was anything else different between them. That led students to notice that the writer didn’t say who was talking in the first one (though they knew it was the narrator), while in the second the writer clearly told us. Noticing that, I then invited them to compare those two with the last two.

The first thing most of the students noticed was that, like the second sentence, the writer said who was speaking, but many also noticed that where the writer named the speaker was different in each sentence. That made them think that in addition to writers not always telling you exactly who was talking, they could also decide to name the speaker before, in the middle or at the end of the dialogue. And noticing that, they also noticed that the writer shared additional information in the last two sentences. In the first, she gave us more information about who the speaker was (as in their job), while the last shared where the person was when they spoke.

With that all charted, we sent the students back to their desks and asked them to pull out the drafts of their narratives. Then in groups of two and three, we gave them a packet of sentence strips with other sentences from Those Shoes that including dialogue, such as these:

And we invited them to sort and categorize the sentences to see if there were even more ways that writers set up dialogue.

That led them to even further discoveries. They noticed that sometimes writers used boldface for dialogue if the speaker was saying something urgent or forceful. They sometimes used words like asks and announces, instead of always using say. And they sometimes told where the speaker was AND what they were doing, in addition to the dialogue

With these new understandings added to the chart, we then invited the students to make some decisions about how they might revise the dialogue in their own drafts to reflect what they’d learn—and everyone was eager to do that. Many, for instance, wanted to add boldface to underscore a line of dialogue’s importance, while many others wanted to try placing the dialogue tag in the middle of the sentence because they thought that was cool.

Feeling empowered by being the protagonists in their own learning, no one blinked an eye when we added a final direction: Once they made those revisions, they needed to go back and find a sentence that was similar to one in Those Shoes, and then punctuate theirs the same way Maribeth Boelt had done. And as the students got to work, the teachers decided to start the next day by revisiting all those sentences to co-construct another chart about how dialogue was punctuated.

To be sure, this lesson took much longer than the one from Visible Learning for Literacy. But here’s the thing: If you go to the book’s appendix, you’ll find a list of practices arranged according to their effect size, from the most impactful to the least. And there you’ll see that Number 2 is Piaget’s approach. Hattie describes those as focusing “on the thinking processes rather than the outcomes and do not impose the adult thinking process on to children,” which is precisely what happened here. And Piagetian practices come with an effect size of 1.28, which means they have more than twice the impact on student learning as direct instruction does. And if you believe the words of Piaget I shared last week, you have to also think that these students will understand and retain far more by discovering how dialogue works on their own.

From Visible Learning for Literacy. Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey and John Hattie. 2016. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Literacy

I’ll surely have more to say about this approach in future posts. But if you want more bang for your instructional buck, consider letting your students be the protagonists of their own learning by letting them discover and explore.

16 thoughts on “Letting Students Be the Protagonists in Their Own Learning

  1. Love. Have always believed we have to caputure early learning agency. And Forester it in learners in classrooms. Watch toddlers and their explorations and constant engagement with whatever catches their fancy. Watch kids at dance lessons, sports practices, theater or vocal rehearsals. Making it meaningful so kids grow their own brains and want to learn what they need. With expert guidance, encouragement, teaching/demonstration AND variety. A good lecture can be mind-blowingly rich and thought-provoking. Too much of a good thing becomes monotonous and too much of non-sizzling lessons…. Well too many will check out. This no retention. Glad we are all still working to raise dialogue about teaching and learning. Thanks for your wisdom and hard work, Vicki.

    • You’re so very welcome, Janet. Einstein once said that, “It’s a miracle that curiosity survives formal education,” and that’s not because kids outgrow curiosity. It’s that much of formal education doesn’t value it as a motivating force, which is so very sad. Always good to know, though, that there are lots of us out there trying to keep that flame alive!

  2. Vicki,
    Thanks for choosing just one practice and digging deeper. Ever since I had to use some Distar programs, “direct instruction” has left a bad taste in my mouth. At a state level, we had a clearly defined difference between “direct” and “explicit” instruction in literacy. Direct instruction always felt Pavlovian and like we were “training” our pets and not very humanely (Shades of Andrea Butler and “barking at print). Mind-numbing, repetitious, over and over, slower and slower, and even louder and louder with no transfer EVER! Because explicit instruction included a think aloud and some meta-cognitive work by both the teacher and the students, it was always preferable.

    What you provided here was a perfect example of what we have used for “inductive thinking’ lessons. It drives some teachers straight up the wall because they believe it means that “any answer goes.” They worry about students getting the “wrong answer” and don’t understand that all student answers are windows into student thinking in real time as it happens. What they also don’t understand is that this instruction is driven by formative data – no other assessment needed for the next planning – because the teacher does use exactly what the students know and show in their work for the next instructional steps. Will it go differently than the teacher plans? Of course! That’s the beauty! We don’t have to follow the exact same route to get to the same learning destination.

    But we do need to pay attention to what works for students . . . learning, transfer, and retention! Or is the direct lesson so dull, dry and boring that it’s merely a task to complete, check off, and move on? It all depends on thoughtful practitioners who are well-educated, well-informed, and responsive to student needs.

    • So much to chew on here, Fran! Because we’ve ceded – or have been forced to cede – our decision making power as professionals to mandates and programs that all too often focus on answers, not thinking, it’s not all that surprising that some teachers worry about their kids not getting the ‘right’ answer. Think they need models of teachers working with students’ emerging understandings, with questions like the one I posed here, “Could there be another way that these sentences are different?” And if kids still aren’t getting to where we want them to be, it’s our responsibility to try to figure out what else to do instructionally, and not just blame the kids. Imagine a doctor who prescribed a treatment for a patient that didn’t work. Would she throw up her hands and assessing the patient instead of the treatment? I hope not. But I am heartened when I read pieces like Mary Howard and Roman Nowak’s blog post and your comments here. Keeping ’em coming, I say. Inch by inch, step by step, our voices will be heard.

      • I also it goes back to beginning with assets. What can our students do? Capitalize on those assets, celebrate successes and the mountain of learning is now our “normal” horizon, not some “way up in the sky, unobtainable peak”.

    • So much great thinking here… just reread and was struck by this –

      “What they also don’t understand is that this instruction is driven by formative data – no other assessment needed for the next planning – because the teacher does use exactly what the students know and show in their work for the next instructional steps. Will it go differently than the teacher plans? Of course! That’s the beauty! We don’t have to follow the exact same route to get to the same learning destination.”

      What a great way to explain the teaching process!

  3. Piaget’s words struck a chord last week. Developmentally appropriate practice are now dirty words in the world of teaching – especially in kindergarten. I believe developmentally appropriate practice fosters thinking, especially higher level thinking because it is a constructivist approach. Rather than use the term developmentally appropriate I try to find euphemisms! But just because kids can do something, doesn’t mean they should. We are so focused on teaching guided reading and sight words that there is much less focus on shared reading and read alouds and literary analysis and response to books that used to go along with those forms of instruction. Yes, direct instruction in phonics and decoding are needed and yes, there could be guided reading for kids who are truly ready. Those who are truly ready, those who have the visual and auditory discrimination, that do more than score well on some CAP assessment, those kids generally take off like rockets! They “crack the code” without chewing on their shirt sleeves. However, “everyone” is expected to be reading at a given level by the end of kindergarten… in fact, those who are not at a given level by January in kdg. are generally identified as needing intervention, remediation, etc. etc. etc. We look at those kids through that deficit lens. Kids who may not be able to tell a lowercase b from a d or recognize the relationship between the word IN and AN would benefit from shared reading and rich literature discussions and responding to literature! That leads to being a great reader. And of course the relationship between writing and reading for emergent readers is well documented. In my dream kindergarten there’s lots of shared reading, “interactive” read aloud, writing workshop with lots of “publishing”, phonics and some guided reading for kids who are truly ready. I still believe my kids will be reading at the level “needed” by the end of first grade if they never were in a guided reading group. Of course I can’t put that theory to the test and if I say that’s how we taught reading 10-15 years ago in kindergarten and it worked… I’d see a lot of eye rolling (and questioning why our kids don’t do better on state exams)! I think the difference is there will be more love of reading, deeper understanding of many genres, more sophisticated talk about books – that is, more thinking — if we weren’t pressuring kids to break the code earlier and earlier because on the surface it looks like they can. My theory is those kids will be able to read and respond on those 3rd and 4th grade state tests… which sadly is still the touchstone.

    • Your comment, Claudia, reminded me of how my daughter was to go through kindergarten without these insane expectation. For her, it was all about the blocks and lots of Kevin Henkes read alouds in schools and bedtime stories at home. She wasn’t reading at grade level until 5th grade, but now, at 26, is an avid reader or authors like Nabokov, Murakami & Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I shudder to think how she’d be labeled and shut down if she’d been born five years later, when trust in teachers and students was replaced by all these crazy accountability measures.And I’m heartened by the number of teachers out there who are recognizing that what we’re being asked to do isn’t always in the best interest of children.

      • The BIG topic of conversation on the way back to class after Thursday’s school assembly was whether or not Frosty the Snowman was real. The kids were not talking about some legendary Frosty. My students were talking about the actual guy dressed in the Frosty costume who visited our assembly!

        One camp insisted he wasn’t the “real” Frosty because they saw the palms of his hands in the costume. The other insisted he was the “real” deal – that is, “you know, “the Frosty who came to life”. Not one said anything about Frosty the Snowman being a fictional character they’d heard about in music class or seen in a cartoon. Those who didn’t believe this Frosty guy at the assembly was the real deal still seemed convinced Frosty the Snowman existed (the guy at the assembly was akin to some Santa’s helper outside ShopRite). This is why I love kindergarten!

        More discussion ensued about Mickey and other “live” characters seen at Disneyland. I chose to stay out of this it as the conversation continued while kids lined up for recess. No doubt this topic will reappear in some format in the months to come.

        But here I was thinking my kids could tell the diff between fiction and nonfiction (on some level). Sorting books onto the fiction and nonfiction shelves is a quotidian event as kids return books they borrowed the day before. And we’ve been differentiating among animal fantasy, personal narrative and realistic fiction as we noticed elements in ABC texts for our alphabet book study and as I read mentor texts for writing personal narratives. Many kids may be able to spout this new nomenclature (I’m all for exposing them to lots of genres, noticing and naming the characteristics) – but I wonder how much do they really understand? Is this truly part of their “schema”?

        This all made me think (AGAIN) about how I’m teaching emergent kids to read (or not read)! As I said in my comment above, I can train (most) kids to decode and read sight words but it doesn’t mean they’re all really ready. Maybe the criteria whether one is ready for guided reading isn’t based on Concepts About Print or sound symbol correspondence but on The Frosty Factor!

  4. I just adore this blog post! It speaks so strongly to the idea that some lessons might be planned well beforehand, while others are planned after watching kids. It also speaks strongly to the idea that not every minilesson will look exactly the same way. I’m working hard at figuring out to help teachers with this. How do we have a plan for our teaching but revise those plans as we watch kids? How do leave room in our units for additional lessons? Most importantly, how do we bring more inquiry into our teaching??

    • Hello Leah! I stumbled on this quote from Marie Clay the other day, which I think speaks to your comment here: “An interesting change occurs in teachers who observe closely. They begin to question educational assumptions.” Helping teachers become open, curious and nonjudgemental kid watchers seems to be part of the answer to your question. And at NCTE I heard a group from Mamaroneck talk about rethinking unit pacing guides by alternating lessons with days devoted solely to small group work and conferring, where they teacher is not just teaching but kid watching. Seemed like a simple, but brilliant idea that might also help answer these really important questions.

      • I love that quote…I also believe that trust plays into all of this. As teachers, we need to trust that this messier process will ultimately yield better results–Administrators also need to trust in this messier process. All of this makes me realize how we need to think about how we get all voices in a school on board.
        You really have me thinking. I also watched that video that you referred to and then compared that to what you did in your blog post. It seemed to me that in your lesson you started with how authors craft dialogue and then you moved into how you punctuate it. I wondered if your first step would be considered deep literacy learning (crafting) and your second would be surface (how you punctuate it) Is it always true that surface learning comes first and deep literacy learning comes second? As your lesson shows, it’s a ongoing question to ask.
        Another word that pops out to me is engagement. Ultimately, the more we can engage kids in the process, the more likely they will learn it. It should be the first question that teachers ask as they plan for learning in their classroom. I would LOVE to chat with you more about this one day soon. Maybe a cup of coffee is in our future?? 🙂

      • Afraid I missed this, Leah! But so glad this had you thinking! My own thinking at this point is that because deeper learning is more engaging (though perhaps only if we let the kids really do the work), they’re more likely to feel the need to know about the surface stuff – and without feeling any need or urgency the surface stuff is more about compliance, which isn’t always terribly engaging. But I think you’re right that we need all the stake holders on board, especially parents. I definitely struggle in schools about how to do that, though every once in a while I’m in a place that’s actually asked me to do a workshop for parents, like the American School in Doha, where the dialogue work was done & I had a full room of parents who were eager – and relieved – to see and learn what we were doing.

    • So glad this post resonanted for you, as you immediately saw the connection between this work and the work you do. Every coach is a teacher who needs to regularly reflect on his or her practice!

  5. Pingback: Becoming Protagonists in Our Own Learning: An Invitation to Inquire | To Make a Prairie

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