What’s in a Word: Some Thoughts on Learning & Achievement


Earlier this month I had the opportunity to work with teachers at the American School in Doha, which is located in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar. The school belongs to an organization called NESA (the Near East South Asia Council of Overseas Schools), whose mission is to “serve member schools by facilitating sustainable and systemic school improvement to maximize student learning.” And whenever I work in a NESA school I’m struck by their use of the word learning, rather than achievement, which is far more often the world of choice in Stateside schools’ mission statements.

As I’ve written about other words (such as rigor, grit and productive struggle and evidence and claim), I think there’s something worth exploring about these words. To me, learning has to do with truly understanding something deeply enough to be able to apply and transfer the concepts from one setting to another, while achievement is focused on skill-based goals that can be measured by grades or scores. And Merriam-Webster’s online thesaurus echoes this distinction, with enlightenment popping up as a synonym for learning, while words like performance, execution and success show up for achievement.

To see how this difference can play out in life—and why it’s important to think about—consider this anecdote from Elizabeth Green’s Building a Better TeacherAt some point the fast-food chain A&W attempted to compete with McDonald’s Quarter Pounder by offering a burger with a third-pound of beef. Strangely though, customers “snubbed” it, wheres-the-beefdespite the fact that it was cheaper than McDonald’s Quarter Pounder and preferred in blind taste tests. Turns out the problem was that customers believed they were getting more beef for their money at McDonald’s, because they’d reasoned that one-fourth was greater than one-third since four was larger than three.

My hunch is that in grade school many of these customers had been able to answer questions about fractions well enough not to fail math. That is, they managed to achieve a passing grade without having understood the concept of fractions. And unfortunately this doesn’t just happen in math. In Doha, for instance, I worked with teachers on ways to more deeply teach grammar and conventions, and right off the bat, the teachers acknowledged something Mary Ehrenworth and I had shared in The Power of Grammar: Students could often correctly punctuate or fix grammatical mistakes on worksheets, but they weren’t transferring that to their own writing. So before we headed into classrooms, we looked at some ways of helping students not just learn rules but the concept behind them in more meaningful ways.

When it came to punctuation, for instance, I shared something I’ve been doing for years: showing students a retyped unpunctuated chunk of text, like the one below from The Watsons Go to Birmingham. Then I ask them to read it, as I invite you to, paying attention to when you’re confused or do a double take because there’s no punctuation to guide you.

the-watsons-go-to-birminghami couldnt believe it the door opened in the middle of math class and the principal pushed this older raggedy kid in mrs cordell said boys and girls we have a new student in our class starting today his name is rufus fry now i know all of you will help make rufus feel welcome wont you someone giggled good rufus say hello to your new classmates please he didnt smile or wave or anything he just looked down and said real quiet hi a couple of girls thought he was cute because they said hi rufus why dont you sit next to kenny and he can help you catch up with what were doings mrs cordel said

This activity brings home to students the concept that punctuation isn’t just about rules; it serves a vital purpose, helping readers navigate uncharted seas of words that otherwise might not make sense. And that, in turn, invites students to consider what might happen to their readers if they failed to include these signposts.

Similarly, to more deeply learn—and understand—the role of verb tense in writing, I shared the following two versions of a nonfiction text, one in the present tense and the other in the past, and asked the teachers to consider if and how the tense affected them as readers:



As you may have felt, the present tense seems more immediate and suspenseful—or, as kids often say it makes you feel like you’re there. The past, on the other hand, can feel more authoritative but also more distant. With students, once students have noticed and felt this, you can then give them a choice: Which effect do they want their readers to experience, the suspense of the present or the authority of the past? And once they’ve decided, their job as writers is to make sure the tense is consistent.

alfie-kohnLike the inquiry work I shared earlier, these kinds of lessons help students not just know the rules, but more deeply understand their purpose in ways that support the transfer of learning. Of course, letting students wrestle with concepts takes longer than explicitly teaching rules through direct instruction, which might not make it seem like the most expedient path to achievement. But as Alfie Kohn wrote in a blog post, there are costs to focusing on achievement over learning, beyond forgetting what was learned. According to Kohn, when we overemphasize achievement, five things tend to happen: “Students

  • come to regard learning as a chore;
  • try to avoid challenging tasks;
  • tend to think less deeply;
  • may fall apart when they fail; and
  • value ability more that effort.”

It’s worth noting that Kohn wrote this post before the concept of growth mindsets took hold. But a survey taken just last year by The Princeton Review shows that high achievement-vs-learningschool students care far more about achieving good grades than they do about learning. This is truly unfortunate because the thing about learning and achievement is this: If we focus on deeper learning, achievement tends to happen as a natural by-product. So why would we choose the word achievement when learning supports application and retention and increases the likelihood of achievement?

My hunch is that it has to do with our fear and obsession about competing globally, in a way that’s also tied to our culture of testing. Most American overseas schools, however, have adopted the Common Core Standards but not the standardized test apparatus that comes it here, which helps them to focus on the higher goal of learning. But I think it would do us good to remember these words of Marilyn French (as quoted by Kohn) and consider which word we want to embrace:

Only extraordinary education is concerned with learning; most is concerned with achieving: and for young minds, these two are very nearly opposite.

On Conventions, Conferences & Other Great Adventures


I’m not quite sure how it got to be November, but for those of you who’ll be in Minneapolis for NCTE later this month, I wanted to offer a heads up that I’ll be presenting with the Kathy Collins in a session called “Becoming the Teachers of Reading Our Children Need Us to Be,” which will look at a variety of ways to help students become the curious, engaged and passionate readers and thinkers we all want them to be. The session will be chaired by Katie Wood Ray, who along with me and Kathy contributed to the new Heinemann book The Teacher You Want to Be, and it will take place on Sunday, November 22nd, at noon. My hunch is that some of you may be heading home by then, but if you’re still around and looking for one last hit of inspiration and some new ideas, please come and join us.

For all my international blog readers and friends, I also want to share that I’ll be presenting at two NESA (the Near East South Asia Council of Overseas Schools) events in the early part of next year. First, I’ll Bangkokbe in Muscat, Oman, on February 5 and 6 for NESA’s Winter Training Institute, where I’ll be exploring “The Power of Grammar” for two days with teachers and administrators. Then I’ll be in Bangkok from April 1 – 4 for NESA’s Spring Educator’s Conference, where I’ll be facilitating a three-day Foundations of Reading workshop for Grade 6-8 teachers. And while I’m already excited beyond belief about these two opportunities, it would truly make my heart sing to see and meet any blog readers out there who are in that part of the world.

Back in the States, I’ll also be presenting at the New England Reading Association’s yearly conference in Portland, Maine, on May 20 and 21. There, I’ll not only facilitate a session but I’ll participate on what promises to be a very special panel comprised of folks who contributed or worked on The Teacher You Want to Be. While plans for that are still being finalized, I have no doubt that it, too, will be both inspiring and thought provoking—and a great way to connect with other like-minded educators who believe that first and foremost we teach children, not curricula or standards.

Finally, for something completely different, I want to share an amazing non-teaching opportunity for any photography and wildlife enthusiasts out there. As some of you may already know, I was in France last summer with my partner David, who’s both a photographer and an Adobe Lightroom expert. Most of our time was spend cycling, but David also arranged a two-day photo shoot for us through a company called Create Away.

© D.A. Wagner 2015, http://lightroomguy.com

© D.A. Wagner 2015, http://lightroomguy.com

Create Away is based in the south of France, in an area called the Camargue. Situated in the delta where the Rhone River splits and spills into the Mediterranean, the Camargue is a regional park that’s home to an ancient breed of white horses, one of Europe’s few colonies of pink flamingos, the kinds of black bulls you’d find in bull rings, and an intriguing mix of French natives and gypsies. In fact, the musical group the Gypsy Kings are from the Camargue. And if you read The Da Vinci code, you’re already familiar with the Camargue town of Saintes Maries sur Mer, where as legend (and author Dan Brown) would have it, the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene and Mary, the sister of Lazarus, landed, along with the Holy Grain, after being cast our of Judea.

As you can see, the shoot was spectacular—so much so that we’ll be returning at the end of August, when David is teaming up with Create Away to offer a special one-week photo tour of the Camargue with between-shoot (and great French food and wine) Lightroom classes. If this sounds like the kind of bucket trip you’ve always dreamed of taking, you can find out more at David’s—a.k.a. Lightroom Guy’s—website.

Wild Horses in the Camargue

© D.A. Wagner 2015, http://lightroomguy.com

So here’s hoping that between Minneapolis, Oman, Bangkok, Portland, and France  some of our paths will cross. And now I really need to dig into my NCTE Convention Planner!

Revisiting The Power of Grammar

Three articles came my way the other week that reminded me of The Power of Grammar: Unconventional Approaches to the Conventions of Language, the book I co-authored with Mary Ehrenworth of the Teachers College Reading & Writing Project several years ago. All three pieces were published by the New York Times, and all three had to do with sentences: “My Life’s Sentences” by the marvelous writer Jhumpa Lahiri, “The Sentence as a Miniature Narrative” by Constance Hale, and finally “Sense, Sensibility and Sentences: Examining and Writing Memorable Lines”  by Shannon Doyle and Holly Epstein Ojalvo.

Each piece puts the humble sentence in the spotlight to explore not only its grammatical parts but its power to move and delight us, to quicken or quiet our heartbeats and pulse through its rhythm, its arrangement, its use of words and choice of punctuation. Each also encourages us to become more aware of the sentence—or as Constance Hale puts it, to become “sentence connoisseurs”—which Doyle and Ojalvo suggest we can do by inviting students to collect and look at sentences alongside us.

Interestingly enough, collecting sentences was exactly how Mary and I began the work that ultimately led to The Power of Grammar. We gathered sentences that had stayed in our minds, like this one from Vladimir Nabokov‘s Lolita, which does, indeed, contain a whole narrative between the first word and the period:

My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightening) when I was three.

And we revisited favorite children’s books to cull wonderful sentences from authors like William Steig, Roald Dahl and Sandra Cisneros.

In terms of study, we didn’t focus on nomenclature or academic vocabulary—that is, we didn’t teach the difference between phrases or clauses or ask students to identify simple versus compound sentences. Instead we asked students to use great sentences as mentor texts, apprenticing themselves to master sentence craftsmen. And what happened when they did that seemed like magic.

In a fourth grade room, for instance, we brought in these two sentence from Leo Lionni‘s picture book Swimmy:

But the sea was full of wonderful creatures, and as he swam from marvel to marvel Swimmy was happy again. He saw a medusa made of rainbow jelly . . . a lobster, who walked about like a water-moving machine . . .  strange fish, pulled by an invisible thread . . . a forest of seaweeds growing from sugar-candy rocks . . . an eel whose tail was too far away to remember . . . and sea anemones, who looked like pink palm trees swaying in the wind.

We studied these sentences closely, just as we’d study craft moves like leads, to see what the writer was up to, using the language the students came up with. The first sentence, the class decided, gave us a sense of where the character was, what he was doing and how he felt. The second sentence was like a list that described what the character was seeing, with the ellipses suggesting that he was moving through both time and place.

We then asked students to look through their writer’s notebooks to see if they had any lists or journeys they might revise using Lionni’s sentence as a mentor, and a student named Mariah found this, which she had written in response to a prompt:

Things I saw on the way to school:

my mom’s face – 2 times

my room

the number 6 train

the gates of the school

my teacher

Apprenticing herself to Lionni’s sentence, Mariah began revising in a way that ultimately allowed her to craft these two sentences, which she later turned into a poem:

The trip to school was full of things to look at, and as I looked from one thing to another I became full of sad-loneliness. I saw my mommy’s face with a sort of funny smile when I woke . . . my room, full of all the things I wasn’t allowed to take with me . . . the train, rushing everyone away from their homes and the people who knew them and loved them inside and out . . . the gates of the school that locked my mommy out . . . my mommy’s face turning away from me and leaving me . . . and the arms of my teacher in a green sweater, who wrapped around me like a living tree.

The shift from her initial notebook entry to her final revision seems breathtaking. She moved from being a recorder of information to a writer who’s using grammatical structures, language and punctuation to fully render an experience in a way that moves and engages her readers. And as readers of The Power of Grammar can see, she was far from the only one.

Unfortunately, though, with genre studies ruling writing workshop these days and the Common Core Standards taking root, it’s been a while since I’ve had the luxury to do this kind of work. But on the heels of these recent articles, I’ve found myself wondering if perhaps there’s an opportunity here to engage in sentence apprenticeship again.

Those of us who’ve been looking at text complexity, for instance, know that one factor that makes a text complex is sentence structure, with texts on the high end of the complexity band increasingly employing sentences with more subordinate phrases and clauses, more intricate details and imagery, along with subtle shifts in reasoning, mood and tone, and sometimes parenthetical asides. Inviting students to apprentice themselves to such sentences and emulate them with their own material can help them better navigate complex sentences as they move into more complex texts. For as Anne Lamott says to aspiring writers in her inspirational handbook Bird by Bird, “becoming a better writer is going to help you become a better reader and that is the real payoff.”

Working with sentences this way also opens the door to students falling in love with language (without which literacy risks remaining merely functional). It also helps students feel the enchantment Jhumpa Lahiri describes when she writes: “For surely it is a magical thing for a handful of words, artfully arranged, to stop time . . . To affect us and alter us, as profoundly as real people and things do.”

So perhaps it’s time to start collecting sentences again and inviting our students to do the same, not to identify things like appositives or gerunds, but to attend to their power and beauty and think about how they affect us. I’m attaching a few I’ve found recently that in different ways all stood out for me. Please feel free to share them and to share as well any wonderful sentences you or your students discover.