Grit. Ownership. Engagement.
These words and ideas have been at the heart of many recent collegial conversations. As educators, our shared desire is to have classrooms full of students who are resilient and independent thinkers, highly engaged in their learning. While it is no secret that we want this for our students the question that remains is… How do we get it?
A great first step that many teachers are taking is to focus on readers and writers instead of products, as we know that focusing on teaching strategies that support bigger goals can lead students to that golden place called independence. However, even when our conferences are goal-centered and focused on supporting students with strategies, we may still find that many of our students are not applying what we teach in the conference! There are few things more crushing to the teacher soul than heading back to a student a couple of days after conferring with him/her and asking, “So, how’s it going? Can you talk to me about what you’re working on?” only to find that they haven’t tried any of the work! In those moments we may want to drop to our knees, pull out our hair, and cry out “WHY!” at the top of our lungs. But instead, we must take a deep cleansing breath and ask ourselves, “Why do some students seem to apply strategies while we’re with them and then stop the moment we walk away?” One part of that answer may be pretty simple…
We forgot the why.
Understanding the purpose of the work is vital if we want to move people toward independence and engagement. Think back to a moment in your life when you were asked to complete a task that you felt was meaningless, or worse, felt was a task to prove your understanding. How engaged were you in the work? Did you bring this learning into your daily practice without being prompted? For me, this experience was typical of my high school chemistry class. Memorizing the periodic table seemed pointless to me without being told how this information might help me understand the world around me. That table was simply a bunch of random letters that represented things that I didn’t really understand. I memorized them for the test but quickly forgot them.
So how can we make sure we’re teaching kids how to master skills while making sure they understand why they are learning these skills to begin with? You may want to try some of these ideas…
Bring samples. If you have a conferring tool kit along for the ride, be sure to include student work samples with post-its that name what the student was trying to accomplish in the piece. Then, highlight or draw arrows to places that show how the student tried out the work. This moves us beyond simply naming the strategy and into showing how that strategy can lift the level of our work.
Simply add why to your teaching point. This doesn’t have to be complicated. Understanding purpose drives us, so simply name a teaching point with a teaching stem tied to it like, “If you want to… (purpose) you might try… (strategy)” Or “When we are trying to… (purpose) something many readers/writers do is… (strategy)” Or even, “When you… (strategy), it can help you to… (purpose).
Tuck in examples from your work! Let kids see how you’ve used what you’re teaching in your own reading or writing life. Show students that what we’re teaching them IS applied to real life situations, for kids and adults alike. This can help them see that their learning is purposeful.
Finally… The when is important too! Along with telling kids why they might try something out, it is equally important to tell them when they might bring out this new move. If our intention is to make the learning purposeful for students, then we must make them aware that at different moments of our reading or writing, we pull out different moves to support our thinking and our work.
Wishing you all classrooms full of engaged and independent learners!