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Best Practices: Getting to Comprehension in the Classroom

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I've enjoyed my five years as a middle school literacy coach, but I still miss the classroom and having my own kids. So I was very excited when my literacy coordinator asked me to write a theme- and concept-based unit and try it out with a class.

I had recently attended conferences with nationally known researchers and read some of their published works (Curriculum as Conversation, Arthur N. Applebee; Getting to Excellent: How to Create Better Schools, Judith A. Langer, and Building Literacy Through Classroom Discussion, Mary Adler & Eija Rougle). In addition, the need to keep abreast in my specialty area had pushed me to explore many books and research articles related to my work.

So I eagerly set out to write an effective unit based on information that was coalescing in my brain. How joyful that synthesis was! I couldn’t wait to get into the classroom to try out my new unit, “Understanding Ourselves: The Conflict Between the Need to Belong and the Need to Be Ourselves.” My primary interest was to push students to think more deeply—to move them beyond the “facts and figures” emphasis so often found in our classrooms in the age of high-stakes testing.

This four-week unit had a number of key elements:

• An engaging theme (the sense of belonging);

• A range of relevant readings (two poems, an interview with Whoopi Goldberg, a picture book, and a short story);

• An overarching essential question: What do various literary genres tell us about the conflict between the need to belong and the need to be ourselves?

• A strong emphasis on learning through writing, and—especially—on student discussion.

Researcher Martin Nystrand has done lots of research on the importance of student discussion and its prevalence (well, actually its lack of prevalence) in our classrooms. In one study Nystrand found that students in 8th grade classrooms spend an average of 50 seconds per class in sustained conversation, which is defined as three or more people speaking. Ninth graders? Thirty seconds. Extensive research also shows that student discussion is highly correlated with academic achievement, especially among second language learners and struggling readers. So I was happy to give it a try.

I constructed my unit using a clearly defined process. An engaging theme determined and tied together my text selections, which were sequenced by length and density of text, easiest to most difficult. Besides the essential overarching question that supported the entire unit, each text had its own guiding questions that were open-ended and accessible to students for discussion. We read each text multiple times for multiple purposes, ensuring a deepening understanding. Each day, students wrote in their reader-writer notebooks (research demonstrates that persistent writing supports students’ thinking). These written pieces also served as “rehearsal” for student discussion: first in pairs and then in table groups or whole-class conversation. It is this constant ebb and flow between writing and talking that helps students make meaning of text and synthesize their own understanding. We don’t get stuck (as so often happens) at the place where students are simply providing the teacher with answers to basic questions about knowledge and comprehension.

I am still amazed at the results of this strategy. Perhaps my strongest evidence is a student named Mario. The first time I asked Mario to do a quickwrite as part of a lesson, I could not understand a thing he wrote. Oh, there were lots of words on the page, but it was mostly a “word salad."

When I read his entry back to him privately and asked if he understood it, he giggled and said, “No.” When I discussed Mario with his teacher, Liz, she told me he would be placed in special education next year. After our four-week unit, Mario wrote an absolutely terrific essay that held up very strongly against all the criteria in our assessment rubric. His 400-word piece was well-organized, demonstrated an excellent grasp of the prompt, and a clear understanding of the implications of the text. He got it!

Other confirmations of this strategy’s effectiveness came from Liz’s observations and my own. For example, many of her C and D students were suddenly performing at the top of the class and were obviously highly engaged in their work. (One classroom scene: Danny looking over what his seatmate Arturo had written and exclaiming, “You wrote all that?!”) Liz couldn’t wait to try her own hand at this lesson design. Now she has teamed up with another enthusiastic teacher to design more concept-based units.

I also paid careful attention to comments and questions in class and to the written evaluations students wrote in their reader-writer notebooks. A few examples:

• After some background information on poet Emily Dickinson and a discussion of her poem, “I’m Nobody! Who Are You?” one student looked at me very intently to inquire, “Do you think her parents knew how she felt?” (She’s actually thinking! I exulted.)

“I like this class because in our other classes, we get in trouble if we want to talk about what we are learning.” --Daniella

• One boy wrote, “I like this class because in here there are no right answers.” He actually meant, “There are no wrong answers,” because we focused primarily on open-ended questions with ambiguous answers and multiple perspectives. This move away from discrete bits of factual knowledge gleaned from text was very freeing when it came time for students to discuss their reading and writing. It also addressed the concern of 21st Century skills advocates that students need to develop a higher tolerance for ambiguity and the ability to consider information from more than one perspective.

• There were also quite a few students who said they liked the class because they got to write a lot! And they got to think at a challenging level. In fact, surprisingly, one of their favorite activities was “step-backs,” where students were encouraged to examine their own learning process.

My four weeks back in the classroom were a dream for me on so many levels. Most important, though, my action research showed me I was definitely on the right track in applying the theory and practices I’d read about from researchers.

We cannot give in and narrow our instruction by simply “teaching to the test.” If we ever expect to be recognized as professionals who carry out complex tasks, we need to learn all we can about the researched best practices that allow real access for and achievement by all students.

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