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.

Revisiting the Reading-Writing Connection: A Deeper Look at Show, Don’t Tell

We all know that reading and writing are intrinsically connected: Readers need writers and writers need readers, and each supports the other. When asked to give aspiring writers advice, for instance, many writers point to the importance of reading—or as Gary Paulson so wonderfully puts it, if you want to write, “read like a wolf eats!“And as I quoted in an earlier post, Bird by Bird author Anne Lamott believes that “becoming a better writer is going to help you become a better reader, and that is the real payoff.”

For those of us who implement some variety of writing workshop, this connection usually leads us to teach students to ‘read like a writer,’ in order to be more aware of the craft moves writers make. And we use mentor texts to explicitly teach craft, with lessons focused on demonstrating such things as how writers ‘hook’ their readers through engaging leads, how they use dialogue to bring a scene alive, and perhaps most frequently how they ‘show, don’t tell.’

Like ‘Write what you know,’ ‘show, don’t tell’ is a kind of writing mantra that teachers tend to teach students again and again. And like ‘write what you know,’ there’s some truth to it, but it doesn’t quite tell the whole story. Many writers, for instance, balk at the idea of writing what you already know—or as children’s book author Richard Peck says, “We don’t write what we know. We write what we wonder about.” But what about the merits of ‘show, don’t tell’? On the one hand, it reflects a general call for students to be writing scenes, instead of summaries, in which events and moments dramatically unfold, and as such it’s good advice. It’s also a call to write with more descriptive and sensory details—or as Chekhov advised, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” And to help students add more sensory description, we often ask them to brainstorm lists of details for each of the five senses—which sometimes leads them to binge on adjectives.

Both of these aspects of ‘show, don’t tell’ are directly related to the powerful way narratives work on us as readers. Vividly rendered dramatic scenes allow us to viscerally and emotionally feel what the writer is writing about in ways that can deeply affect us. In fact, neuroscientists have been able to document these affects through brain scans, as The New York TImes article “Your Brain on Fiction,” recently explored. Some scientists even report that “individuals who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and see the world from their perspective,” which is one of the characteristics of Common Core Standards college and career ready students.

Inviting students to harness this power through showing, not telling, is wonderful. But I think there’s something else writers do with scenes and details to affect us so deeply that isn’t always captured in the call to ‘show, don’t tell’—though I think it’s hiding right there in Chekhov’s sentence. As a writer whose stories and plays explore dashed dreams and diminished expectations, it seems telling that Chekhov chose to explain what he meant through an image involving broken glass rather than, say, a crystal goblet. That is, he may have purposely chosen that detail not to be descriptive for description’s sake, as many student writers seem to do, but to echo the themes he tends to explore in his plays and stories.

In this way, we could say that writers actually show AND tell. They give us details we can see, hear, smell, taste or feel in order to bring their scenes alive so we can experience them, too. But those details often tell us something as well—about a character’s situation or feelings, their relationships to people and places, and sometimes even about themes. Of course, to figure out what those details are telling, we, as readers, have to infer. But we infer because at some level we know that those details are more than descriptive window dressing. They actually mean something, and the inferences and hunches we make are answers to the question we invisibly ask: “What is the author trying to tell me through this choice of detail?”

To see this in a text we might use in a classroom, let’s look at the first page of Cynthia Rylant‘s story “Spaghetti” from the wonderful collection Every Living Thing, which two third grade ICT teachers I worked with used as a mentor text last year to push into show and tell.

Having read and enjoyed the story earlier, the students were able to return to the opening and see what we, as experienced readers, probably can on a first read: that Rylant has described the setting in a way that seems to accentuate and mirror the loneliness that Gabriel feels, with the things he remembers in the next paragraph ‘telling’ us something as well—that Gabriel is smart and probably poor and longs to have a different sort of life than he’s currently leading, one that’s filled with companionship and light. And seeing how Rylant deliberately used description and detail not just to appeal to our senses but to evoke and reveal both the character’s feelings and his situation, they went back to the narratives they were working on and tried to do the same. One of the third graders, for instance, was working on a story about the time he had to kill a spider in the bathtub because his mother was sick. Rather than focusing on describing the bathroom—the color of the walls and tiles, the smell of shampoo in the air—he focused on the spider instead and tried to describe it in a way that conveyed all the fear he felt.

Adding show and tell to our repertoire of craft lessons helps students engage in what Annie Dillard describes as one of the critical aspects of writing. “The writer of any work,” she says in Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, “must decide two crucial points: what to put in and what to leave out.” And deciding what to put in, she continues, requires the writer to ask “What is this about?” at the deepest level: what do I want my reader to understand about people and life through this story?

Asking students to experiment with show and tell, instead of ‘show, don’t tell’, requires that they also wrestle with what’s at the heart of their stories, which results in more meaningful writing. And it helps them be more critical readers. For if they know that writers show and tell by choosing their details deliberately to underscore their deeper meaning, they’re more apt, as readers, to wonder and consider what an author is trying to convey through those details by asking themselves the very same question the writer asked herself: “What is this about?” And that’s where the reading-writing connection becomes even more powerful.

Helping Students Consider the Significance of Details with Wordless Books

As we saw last week when I shared the responses to Allen Woodman’s story “Wallet,” experienced readers invest much thought in considering the possible significance of a narrative’s details. To do this, they use many of the strategies we commonly teach in classrooms—they visualize, infer and question up a storm. But they use those strategies because they know something about the way narratives work that I think we teach far less often: that everything readers encounter in a text—from the title to the imagery to the lowliest detail—has been deliberately chosen by the author for a purpose. And a reader’s job is like a detective’s: We carefully attend to the details for clues in order to develop hunches and theories about what we think the author might be trying to showing us and exploring through those detail clues.

I believe it’s important that we share this knowledge with the students we teach and set whatever strategy work we do in the context of this understanding. The question, as always, in classrooms is how. We can, of course, present it as a teaching point in a mini-lesson, modeling how we ask ourselves questions like, “Why is the author showing me this?” and “What could this detail mean?” then demonstrating how we brainstorm possibilities and read on on the look-out for more clues. Over the years, though, I’ve come to believe that while this kind of think-aloud can certainly help some students, many more need to experience it themselves to truly ‘get’ it in a way that allows them to transfer the thinking to other texts.

This belief is supported by the research behind Learning Pyramids such as this one, which show how much students retain what’s taught according to the instructional method. You’ll see that, while 30% of students retain what’s been demonstrated, more than twice that many retain what they’ve been able to practice themselves. Because of this, I try to keep demonstrations short and move students from listening to practicing quickly so that, in this case, they can experience for themselves the purposefulness of an author’s choice of detail. That means that I need to be purposeful as well with my choice of text, finding one that allows students to engage in this work with a minimum of scaffolding and modeling. And that’s where wordless books come in.

Wordless books allow students to engage in the thinking work of meaning making without any of the decoding, vocabulary or syntax challenges of print. And they invite students to scrutinize the details in the pictures in the exact same way we want them to eventually scrutinize the details in print. There are many wonderful wordless picture books for lower school children, including the delightful Boy, Dog, Frog books by Mercer Mayer and virtually anything by David Wiesner. But for middle and even high school students, who often need experience with this thinking as well, my all-time favorite is Shaun Tan‘s amazing wordless book The Arrival

Everything about The Arrival is mysterious, from the antique-looking cover to the two title pages, one of which is in an unidentifiable language with a strange-looking alphabet. And then comes the first page, which looks like this:

Frequently students react with a “Huh?”, which seems like a perfectly reasonable response to such an opening—and is, in fact, a reasonable reaction to the beginnings of many narratives from Level M on up. But when asked to look carefully and share out what they notice, they begin to do what experienced readers do: They attend to the details and wonder what they might mean by connecting detail to detail and inferring. Many notice, for instance, the drawing in the center of the page and the picture in the lower right corner and wonder if they’re the same people. Some connect the suitcase to the one on the cover and wonder if that man is the same man here. And some notice the crack in the teapot and the chip on the cup and think that maybe these people are poor. And if so, maybe the fact that they’re poor has something to do with the suitcase and the title, which now takes on more significance.

As Dorothy Barnhouse and I suggest in What Readers Really Do, these wonderings and fledgling ideas are the students’ first-draft understanding of the text, which will go through many revisions as they encounter more details, connect them together and develop their ideas. And that process begins immediately as we turn the page and come to the next spread (where students have actually been known to gasp):

What had seemed so confusing just a page before suddenly takes on more meaning as the students infer that all of these objects belong to the couple in the earlier picture and that all but that picture, which has been tenderly wrapped and packed in the suitcase, will soon be left behind. From the gestures and expressions, they also infer that this is a sad occasion, though Tan brings back the origami bird a few pages later to suggest a different feeling and show us something about the man’s character and his relationship with the child.

Beyond being an extraordinary story, The Arrival helps students see how authors plant and use details to reveal everything from the characters to themes. And having seen and experienced that first hand here, they’re more primed to attend to details in a printed text than they’d be if they’d just observed a think-aloud. Additionally, having made this visible for students, we’re in a better position, as teachers, to remind them of that thinking work when we confer with them on their own reading. And if they’re beginning to take that work on, a conference offers students the perfect opportunity to teach us what they’re discovering as readers, which helps them retain this key understanding about how texts work even more.

Providing Background Knowledge: Effective Scaffold or Spoon-feeding?

Two weeks ago I looked at one of the recommendations found in the Common Core Standards Publisher’s Criteria for Grades K-2 and 3-5, which attempt to lay out some guidelines for designing Standards-based reading curriculum. In addition to questioning strategy instruction, both Criteria also offer caveats against front-loading information or engaging students in pre-reading activities that provide them with access to a text’s ideas without actually grappling with the text itself.

Like the criteria about comprehension strategies, questioning front-loading is a ‘biggie,’ especially when it comes to providing background knowledge which students might not have. No less an expert than Doug Lemov, for instance, the author of the hugely popular Teach Like a Champion, cites pre-teaching background material as one of the techniques effective teachers use. “If students don’t really know what a Nazi is when they start reading ,” he writes as an example, “they’re not going to get what they need to out of Number the Stars or The Diary of Anne Frank.” And so he advocates providing students with that information before they crack open those books “because it prevents misunderstandings before they crop up rather than remediating them afterward.”

There are certainly times when I front-load information. I give students vocabulary words, for instance, when I want them to practice a particular kind of thinking without getting hung-up on unknown words—though more often I don’t because I want students to see and experience how they’re still able to construct meaning without knowing every word. But I’m not sure I ever front-load information to circumvent misunderstandings because I believe that confusion and uncertainty are part of the reading process.

Students need to experience how readers work their way from confusion to understanding, and that process can get short-changed if we front-load too much. I also want students to see that if they read closely and attentively, connecting the dots of details together and considering what significance they might hold, they’re capable of comprehending and understanding without extensive prior knowledge. That’s because most narrative texts are what I call ‘self-contained worlds’—that is, they provide the context and knowledge readers need to understand them, provided they read carefully enough and attend to the details they encounter.

To show you what I mean, let’s see what could happen if we don’t front-load information about Nazis before opening Lois Lowry‘s Number the Stars by first looking at the opening of a book I doubt we’d provide background knowledge for: Suzanne Collins‘s YA dystopian novel The Hunger Games. Here’s a slightly abridged version of the book’s opening, which I invite you to read, setting aside what you might already know to see what you can make of the world you’ve just entered by connecting and fitting details together.

Provided we’ve managed to ignore all the hype about the book and movie, we won’t know for several pages what ‘the reaping’ is, but by connecting details in the first paragraph, we can infer it’s a source of bad dreams. And while it may be an occasion for gifts, as evidenced by the goat cheese, it’s also associated with shuttered houses, empty streets and sleepless nights, which doesn’t make it sound like fun.

We also don’t know where we are, other than some place called District 12. But the clues give us the sense that it’s a dreary, bleak place, where people sleep on rough canvas sheets and walk down black streets with hunched shoulders. And with the word ‘hunger’ from the title in mind, we might also infer that it’s a place where there might not be enough food to feed even a mangy cat. There is, though, something sweet and heart-warming about the siblings’ relationship that stands in stark contrast to the other details. And the tension between that bleakness and sweetness, along with our desire to learn more about what’s happening, is what keeps us turning the page.

Now let’s look at the opening of Number the Stars and think about what a reader who knows nothing about the Nazis or World War II might be able to make of it, using the exact kind of thinking we just applied to get an initial feel for the world of The Hunger Games. 

Without any knowledge of geography or history, we can infer here that we’re in a place called Copenhagen and that, at least in the first half of the passage, it seems like a nice-enough place, where girls race and laugh on their way home from school down streets lined with shops and cafés. But then something happens and the whole mood changes as the girls encounter two soldiers with rifles, tall boots and cold, glaring eyes who speak a language that’s different than theirs despite the fact that the soldiers have been in the girls’ country for three years. We do not need to know that they’re Nazis to comprehend the fear they inspire. Nor do we need to know the word ‘contempt,’ since there will be other places in the book to pick up the fact that many people in this place called Copenhagen feel something else about these soldiers that eventually leads them to great acts of courage.

In fact, not knowing who the soldiers are and why they are in this place allows us as readers to feel and experience the full horror of what’s happening, as that awareness dawns on us slowly, as it does on Annemarie. And it’s not knowing that keeps us reading and makes us want to learn more, just as it does in The Hunger Games. For that’s what narratives give us: the opportunity to not just ‘know’ what happened in Denmark in the 1940’s but to emotionally and empathetically experience it ourselves as we enter a world that the author has created through carefully chosen details that give us what we need to know in order to make meaning. That’s not to say that, as teachers, we shouldn’t bring history in at some point to expand and enrich our students understanding, only that we might benefit by waiting till the students are curious and engaged in the book and have something to attach that information to.

In the end, I think it all comes down to purpose and what we want students ‘to get.’ If we want them to ‘get’ information about the Holocaust, there’s far more expedient ways to do that than reading a novel. But if we want them to get how readers construct an understanding of everything from the setting to the theme from the details the author provides, while also experiencing the power of narratives to move our hearts, not just our minds, we’d do better by teaching them the process of meaning making than by front-loading facts.

That’s the gift and enlightenment we can give to students—not facts, but the tools to make meaning.

© 2011 D.A.Wagner - http://dawagner.com