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.

My First Chapter: Aligning Our Practices with Our Beliefs

Last week I had the privilege of attending and presenting at NCTE’s annual convention. The theme this year was “The First Chapter,” which suggested that, as literacy educators, we were leaving an old story behind and embarking on a new one. And different speakers and sessions addressed that theme in a variety of ways.

Many, for instance, spoke about leaving the teaching of ‘safe’ content behind to embrace a more social and political agenda by directly tackling controversial issues and inviting their students to take action. Others addressed specific practices, like the need to replace deficit language (as in, “Those students can’t ________.”) for more asset- or strength-based words; while still others explored how teachers could reclaim their own voice and agency, in an environment that often dismisses them, by sharing their own reclamation stories.

I think the session I facilitated with Ellin Keene and Donna Santman touched on all three of these. Donna shared her own personal journey to reclaim those parts of herself she felt she had lost when she compromised her values to address an administrator’s worry about test scores. Ellin shared work she’s been doing around creating systemic school and district change by focusing on teachers’ and schools’ assets, not their deficits. And I kicked off the session by inviting all those present to try to articulate what they believed about children, how they learn and the purpose of education in order to see if their teaching practices aligned to those beliefs.

On the one hand, my piece was quite different from those where teachers shared classroom stories about what happened when they designed curriculum around social justice issues and activism. But consider these words from the Brazilian educator Paolo Freire:

If we acknowledge at least some truth in this statement—and believe that, like students, we need to be more socially aware and active—I think we have to examine what assumptions about children, learning and education lie beneath our practices. And to that end I want to invite you to go through an abbreviated version of the process our NCTE audience did.

I began by sharing this from Regie Routman (by way of Judy Wallis), which shows that when educators want to start a new chapter to implement change, we tend to think about resources first and then follow the practices those resources dictate. Most packaged Common Core curriculum, for instance, require teachers to ask students text-dependent questions and follow a prescribed three-read protocol for close reading.  And whether we’re aware of it or not, those practices reflect a set of beliefs we may not fully agree with.

So to start us thinking about our own beliefs, I shared an example of “This I Believe” statements from a wonderful post by Kari Yates:

And I shared a few of my own beliefs, many of which, like the statement below, were informed my study group trip to Reggio Emilia to consider the implications of their approach to early childhood on literacy across the grades.

From there I invited everyone to think more specifically about what they believed the purpose of education was. And to jump start that process I shared these examples for people to chew on:

Interestingly enough, when I asked for a show of hands, no one in the audience felt any single one of these captured what they believed; though some borrowed some language from one or more of them and then added words like confidence and soul that they felt were missing. Those sorts of words formed a natural segue to considering what they believed about children—and it did not go unnoticed that at least one of the purpose of education statements revealed some beliefs about children and teaching, which suggested this:

I then contrasted the empty vessel view of children with what teachers in Reggio Emilia believe:

And I shared the story behind a video I saw in Reggio Emilia about a toddler named Laura that demonstrated each of these crucial beliefs:

As can be seen in these stills from the video, Laura’s teacher first noticed that Laura had been looking at a page spread of watches in a magazine. Observing that, the teacher leaned closer and extended her arm, which brought her watch into Laura’s line of sight. After a few moments in which Laura’s eyes went back and forth between the watches in the magazine and the one her teacher wore, the teacher lifted her arm and held the watch to Laura’s ear. In the video you can see how Laura’s eyes widened with wonder as she listened to the watch, then she put her head, ear down, on the page to see if those watches ticked, too.

The story of Laura shows how even young children are capable of constructing an understanding of the world through their own explorations. It also shows a masterful teacher who, rather than seizing on that moment to transmit some knowledge, like the word watch, instead built on what Laura had already noticed by inviting her to notice more in a way that stoked both her curiosity and her desire to learn. Clearly this teacher does not believe children are empty vessels but rather are meaning makers who have within them the capacity to make sense of the world. And her practice is aligned with that as well as with Piaget’s belief that:

With this example of how beliefs and practices can align, I then shared several slides that represent some common classroom practices and asked people to think about whether they actually matched their own beliefs about children and how they learn:

If you’re like our NCTE audience, you may have thought that at least some of these practices don’t really reflect your beliefs, But then I shared this slide and the room went silent:

For decades now explicit instruction accompanied by teacher modeling has been the gold standard of literacy practice, as has the gradual release of responsibility model, which was first articulated by P. David Pearson and Margaret Gallagher in 1983. Yet almost seven years ago, in his coda to Comprehension Going Forward, Pearson had this to say: 

To be clear, I’m not saying we should abandon these practices. Never say never is one of my mottos, and here that means that I keep direct instruction and modeling in my toolkit to take out if it’s needed. But I think we do have to acknowledge that mini-lessons are much more in sync with the transmission view of teaching and learning than the constructivist one and the gradual release of responsibility model suggests that kids can’t do much on their own. And for many of us this can be what I shared in my last slide:

But perhaps it’s uncomfortable truths like this that help us turn a new page and write a first chapter for the story we want to embark on. Let me know what you think!

The Fifth Annual Celebration of Teacher Thinking

Can a tradition be a tradition if a year is skipped? I’m hoping so, as it seems that, with the final revisions of Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading due at Heinemann last August, I missed celebrating teachers’ thinking last year as a way of also commemorating the start of another new school year.

I’m back, though, this year to share a handful of the many thoughtful, wise, and inspiring comments left on the blog over the last twelve months. These comments, as well as scores of others, reassure me that children across our increasingly divided country, will find in their teacher someone who listens, who cares deeply about their emotional, intellectual and physical well-being, and is willing to take risks on their behalf—including being vulnerable, as true learners must be.

As I’ve done before (as well as here, here, and here), I’ve set each reader’s comment next to an image that links back to the the post they were responding to, so you can have some context for their thoughts as well as see what others think. And if the author of the comment is also a blogger, I’ve embedded a link to their blog in their name; while with others, I’ve embedded their twitter handle, so you have the option to learn more about both their work and their thinking.

And now, without any more words from me are the words of six amazing teachers, all of whom I’m honored to have as readers:

“Clearly, this lesson took forethought and masterful planning for the “unknown” on the part of the teacher. It showed trust of student abilities and high expectations . . . [and] it allowed time for kids to do the “work”. It was apparent that kids’ reasoning was the norm, right answers not a goal, revising thinking an expectation. . . .[But] I’m not sure if others come up against the following as I do: sometimes, even though lessons are thoughtfully and purposely open-ended and designed to get kids to reason, others assume I’m advocating for “not planning” or “not teaching”. Sometimes, when what is deemed to be direct instruction (i.e. “I tell or model and you listen or spit back”) is not seen, others may assume thoughtful teaching and planning isn’t happening.” Claudia Tucci

“The concept of “true teaching” ought to ring true with all educators- just because we taught it doesn’t mean they learned it. I love the four-step process for learning and am planning to share that in future trainings. It’s only when we learn that a “blind spot” even exists that we can actually do something about it (until we know about what we didn’t know we didn’t know about). And the way you discuss how we approach the teaching of punctuation gets at the all-important ‘why’ of humanity. I, like you I think, believe the ‘why’ is what drives all of us.” Lanny Ball

“This post. . . has me thinking again (and worrying) about the long-term consequences of the limitations we impose on our students’ writing. In particular, I worry about the year-long genre restrictions that come along with a set curriculum that must be taught “with fidelity.” New to teaching fourth grade, I have much to learn about that curriculum and about how to nurture passion and choice within it. There has to be a way, right? Your post reminds me that finding this way is work that cannot be postponed until I’m more comfortable and confident within the framework of the curriculum. The idea that a student will leave my class not liking, or even hating, writing horrifies me.”  Molly Hogan

“I couldn’t agree more and am saddened that even at a young age, students are concerned more with making the benchmark (and they know this word) than seeing learning as a journey. In second grade they ask, “will this be on a test?” “Can you test me today so I can read the next level book?” I love the idea of letting students wrestle with figuring “things” out, naming it on their own, and giving it a try. It allows ownership and meaningful understanding. Thank you for this thought provoking post.” Kim Clancey

“More and more I’m realizing that so often what we do doesn’t match up with what we believe, or at least, what we SAY we believe. I think your response to Julieanne’s comment in last week’s post really nailed it: we are focused more on “achievement” (which is really more about teachers and admin) than LEARNING (which is all about the students). And I do think that one reason we don’t do more constructivist-type teaching is that it takes longer. But, the payoff is worth it in the end: if we let kids construct their own understanding with guidance from us. ultimately students’ learning is deeper, plus we don’t have to go back and reteach- which adds it’s own extra time.” Allison Jackson

“While reading this post I thought more about the concept of significance. In the midst of helping my Year 5 classes with a History inquiry, we are building a timeline together. We are finding that agreeing upon significance of events is not easy. I can’t wait to tell them tomorrow that significance and perspective are connected, and as authors of the timeline, we are making choices that will affect the reader. I think I’m on the right track now, and will enable the students to turn a ‘So what?’ task into something richer.” Brette Lockyer

Finally, as I put this post together, I think I noticed a pattern running through the comments as I often do. In one way or another, all these teachers seem to be questioning, challenging and pushing the boundaries of what it means to teach. And once again, this suggests to me that all these teachers are real, authentic learners, which, I believe is incredibly important, because as Writing Workshop founder Don Graves once said:

So may we all go forth in this new school year thinking, learning, questioning and taking risks, just as we want our students to do.




From Content & Concepts to Practice: Setting Students Up to Construct Understandings


A few weeks ago I invited teachers to construct an understanding of the deeper purposes of realistic fiction and then shared their ideas in a follow-up post. And last week I shared a lesson that helped fourth graders construct a deeper understanding of how scenes and details work. In both cases I, in the role of teacher, created opportunities for learners to invent new knowledge, and pedagogically that’s quite different than the kind of direct instruction with modeling associated with writing workshop mini-lessons.

As a teaching practice, creating learning opportunities goes by many names. In his great book Mentor Author, Mentor TextsRalph Fletcher borrows a term from the world of computer programming and calls it an “open source” approach to teaching craft. Instead of teaching a specific craft move through a mentor text—which, as Ralph notes, “runs the risk of reducing a complex and layered text to one craft element”—an open source approach invites students to “look at these texts and enter them on their own terms,” which “gives students more control, more ownership.” While Katie Wood Ray describes this practice in her wonderful book Study Driven as an “inquiry approach” to teaching and learning, where students are similarly invited to notice and discover what writers do then try on the moves they’d like to emulate.

Whatever we call the practice, however, it’s directly connected to the constructive theory of teaching and learning espoused by educators like Dewey, Piaget, Vygotsky and Bruner. With some slight differences, each of these great minds thought that students retain, understand and are more likely to apply and transfer what they’ve actively constructed than what they’ve been more explicitly taught. And these ideas hold many implications for what it means to teach, such as the following:


While there are times I do teach through direct instruction and modeling, I increasingly use constructivist practices with both students and teachers. For students, for instance, who need additional time to wrestle with the concept of scenes versus summaries, I like to share the following two pieces by Lois Lowry about the same event and invite them to consider how they’re different in order to construct a deeper understanding of the purpose and craft of scenes.

The first is from her memoir Looking Back:

lois-lowry-red-plaid-shirt     I was nine years old. It was a man’s woolen hunting shirt. I had seen it in a store window, it’s rainbow colors so appealing that I went again and again to stand looking through the large window pane.             The war had recently ended, and my father, home on leave before he had to return to occupied Japan, probably saw the purchase as a way of endearing himself to a daughter who was a virtual stranger to him.                                                                   If so, it worked. I remember still the overwhelming surge of love I felt for my father when he took me by the hand, entered Kronenburg’s Men’s Story, and watched smiling while I tried the shirt on.

And this is from her autobiographically inspired picture book Crow Call:


Practices like these—which ask students to explore the question, What is a scene and how do writers write them?—are also related to the problem-based approach to teaching math that’s increasingly being embraced, as well as to what I advocate for in my new book on reading. But for reasons I don’t completely understand, these practices haven’t taken much hold in literacy. Perhaps, it’s because they can take more time than a typical mini-lesson does or because, being open-ended, they can be messier than direct instruction. If you believe, though, that the ultimate goal of teaching is the transfer of learning, as the late, great Grant Wiggins does in one of his final blog posts, then we have to consider the findings of a research study that compared the affects of direct instruction (DI) and what they called discovery learning through problem solving practice (PR) over time:

From "Direct Instruction vs. Discovery: Taking the Look View" by David Dean JR. & Deanna Kuhn

From “Direct Instruction vs. Discovery: Taking the Look View” by David Dean JR. & Deanna Kuhn

As you can see from the chart, students engaged solely in discovery learning—who constructed their own understandings of content through grappling and practice—demonstrated consistent growth in learning over time. The combination of students receiving both direct instruction and discovery learning ultimately reached the same level of learning, despite a somewhat precipitous drop along the way. But those who only received direct instruction were able to transfer less.

For the record, this study involved fourth graders presented with a science problem, not a literacy one. But as I wrote in an earlier post, I think the process of constructing an understanding by developing hypotheses about what you notice that you then test out, refine and revise into theories, can be the same across the disciplines. It’s also worth noting that, whether we call this an open source, inquiry, constructivist or problem-based approach, there’s still lots of teaching to do.

As you can see with my Ruby the Copycat example, I nudged students to deeper thinking by raising probing questions and inviting them to be more specific and precise about what they’d noticed. And from that, I named what they’d noticed in more generalized language so students could apply and transfer it to their own work. And you can see the masterful Kate Roberts do the exact same thing in a video of her working with middle school students studying a mentor argument text.

kate-roberts-inquiry-lessonYou could say that both Kate and I set students up to notice things we might ordinarily teach through direct instruction, which, as Katie Wood Ray says in Study Driven, allowed them to uncover content versus receive it, which can deepen understanding. And finally there’s another reason to add this powerful practice to your teaching repertoire. According to Jerome Bruner, “Being able to ‘go beyond the information’ given to ‘figure things out’ is one of the few untarnishable joys of life.” So if you want to bring more joy to your classroom, consider creating opportunities for students to construct their own understanding, versus always teaching them directly.



Rethinking Readiness

Are You Ready

The results of this year’s New York State assessments—the first to supposedly be aligned to the Common Core—were released the other week, and as expected scores plummeted. Only 26% of New York City students passed the English exam, which means that, in the parlance of the day, 74% of city students are off-track for being college and career ready. The results have rekindled the blame game that’s replaced real discussion about public education, and they’ve reopened all sorts of questions about the tests themselves. And for me, they’ve also raised questions about what it means to be ready and how to help students get there.

As most of us know, the Common Core Standards were designed by identifying the academic skills students would need to be ready for college and careers and then working back from there. We could see it, in a sense, as a large-scale example of backwards planning where, having determined the desired outcome, the Standards writers created a scope and sequence of skills for getting there. But as many early childhood experts have pointed out—such as those who signed a joint statement expressing “grave concerns” about the Standards when they were first unveiled—this backward planning process neglected to take into account a slew of cognitive, developmental and neuroscience research about how children learn.

College and Career Ready CartoonWith those concerns unheeded, a recent survey conducted by the nonprofit project Defending the Early Years shows that a whopping 85% of the public school pre-K to third grade teachers who responded believes that they’re being required to engage students in developmentally inappropriate activities. What seems ironic, if not tragic, to me is that while learning through the developmentally appropriate methods of exploration and play may not help children identify the setting of a story (as RL.K.3 requires), it actually lays the foundation for them to be critical thinkers and problem solvers. Or put another way, exploration and play may be a more effective path for becoming college and career ready than teaching young children to become pint-size literary critics through skills-based direct instruction.

From One Experience to AnotherIt probably comes as no surprise that I think older students learn best as well when they’re given opportunities to explore and solve problems. But several other issues impact readiness in reading, which I found myself thinking about during a shared reading demo I did with a class of seventh graders as part of an institute Dorothy Barnhouse and I facilitated in June. I’d chosen a short text, “Dozens of Roses: A Story for Voices” by Virginia Euwer Wolff, from the short story anthology From One Experience to AnotherAs you can see from the opening below, the text puts few demands on students at the vocabulary or syntax level—i.e., there aren’t many word or syntax problems a reader would need to solve. But beyond the play-like format, figuring out what’s going on and why requires a ton of complex thinking as the author never directly comes out and tells us what has happened.

Dozens of Roses

Some of you reading this might already have a hunch about where the story’s going—there’s abuse involved—but despite lots of great talk and great participation, none of the students could ‘see’ that. As I met with the teachers who’d been observing to think about the instructional implications of what we’d seen, we wondered whether part of the problem was that the possibility of abuse was something they couldn’t imagine. That is, it was a conclusion they weren’t yet ready to reach.

CrossroadAnd here we hit a crossroads: On the one hand, if we believe that one of the great gifts reading offers is the way it extends our understanding of human nature—and that seventh grade is an appropriate place for students to be aware of abuse—we head in one direction. On the other hand, isn’t there something to be said for those seventh graders who couldn’t imagine anyone inflicting harm on someone they supposedly love? Might not that be something to celebrate—just as we might celebrate the kind of imaginative or magical thinking young children are capable of, knowing that they’ll grow out of it quickly without us pushing them?


Illustration by Blanche Sims, from Fish Face by Patricia Reilly Giff

Aware that there were a handful of students who’d been circling the idea without quite getting there, we decided in this case to pursue the first course and design a small group lesson that might push their thinking. But rather than battering them with more prompts and loaded questions to pull the answer out, I took a path that might feel counter-intuitive to those who think that the way to prepare students to read complex texts is to have them read more complex texts: I gave them all copies of an easier text that posed the same kind of problem, an excerpt from Patricia Reilly Giff’s Fish Face, which I often use. And I asked them to consider this question: How can we figure out something that’s happened that the writer doesn’t tell us directly?

Without too much trouble the students figured out what the author hadn’t explicitly said—that Emily lied about her middle name in order to impress Dawn, whom she envied. And as they explained how they arrived at that conclusion, I turned their thinking into an equation, showing them how they’d added up various details from the text to come up with what hadn’t been said:

Emily admires/is envious of Dawn’s things

+ Emily wants to be Dawn’s friend

+ Emily also admires Dawn’s middle name

+ Emily doesn’t have a middle name but says it’s Tiffany to Dawn

= Emily lied to impress Dawn

And with that experience under their belts, they took a second look at “Dozens of Roses” and ‘saw’ what they hadn’t before—which led one student to exclaim, “Oh, that’s really creepy!”

This stepping-backwards-to-step-forward approach—with its emphasis on complex thinking, rather than on Lexile levels—seems, to me, like a better path to help students become ready. But here’s one last thought about readiness: Whenever I facilitate a reading experience with teachers, where we read and talk about a complex text together, I’m reminded of how often we don’t feel ready to make a claim about the author’s message—at least not right away. Instead we want to talk more and ponder in a way that seems akin to how the 16th century philosopher Francis Bacon defined the work of critical thinking:

“Critical thinking is a desire to seek, patience to doubt, fondness to meditate, slowness to assert, readiness to consider, carefulness to dispose and set in order, and hatred for every kind of imposture.”

This description of critical thinking seems almost diametrically opposed to how students are supposed to demonstrate readiness for college and careers, especially as gauged by standardized tests where speed and right answers rule. But I have to wonder whether we’d do better by giving students more time to doubt, consider, seek and meditate rather than rushing straight through to making claims. Granted, it would be a slower path, though it might be one that’s more durable. And while it would be harder to measure on a standardized test, maybe those tests aren’t really ready to assess readiness.

I'm just not yet ready