The Story of a Transformation: Students and Teachers Read and Write the World at Bakersville School
It began with mystery clues, an activity that two of our teacher-consultants Patty and Jessica, demonstrated for all of the teachers on an early release day. The workshop was about reading, writing and empathy and the activity concerned reading. Before introducing a text, the teacher extracts short words and phrases from it, such as “9 out of 10 children” or “work long hours in the banana fields” and posts them on chart paper. Students use the “mystery clues” to create sentences, which the teacher writes on the board. Then the students create questions from the sentences and phrases. They do this in pairs, and then the teacher collects all of their questions on chart paper. It tends to be quite generative and as the students read the questions, they generate more questions. The teacher lists all of these on chart paper, but does not answer them. The class then reads the article. The articles we used had to do with controversial issues. The first was about banana harvesting in Ecuador. We also used articles about the garment fire at the factory in Bangladesh, Malala Yousufzai’s shooting in Pakistan, and conditions in training camps for Dominican baseball players. One commonality in all of the readings was the tie to young people and education.
After reading and discussing the articles, teachers had students write letters. The teachers were thrilled with the results. They were full of feeling and randomly addressed, encompassing everything from “Dear Bangladesh” to “Dear President Obama” or “Dear Taliban” to ”Dear Walmart store manager” and “Dear MLB.” The letters were emotional and passionate. They used rhetorical strategies such as “How would you feel if this happened to you” and “this is unfair,” but many attacked the recipient directly, using phrases like “how dare you…” The students often failed to orient the recipient of the letters to what they were talking about. The teachers responded to the passion in the writing. One of the 5th grade teachers told me that it brought back her joy of teaching and that she remembered why she got into the field. Another reported how a student had gone through all the labels on his clothing and had put everything made in Bangladesh in a huge pile, and was starting a boycott campaign.
All of this was exciting and thrilling for us as well. We were glad to see the teachers so enthused and excited about student work, and so energized by the results of the activity. We were also impressed by how much the students cared about what they were writing. But our teacher consultant, Kate Eagen, and I were troubled by certain aspects of the writing, and we wanted to encourage the teachers to go deeper, and to inspire their students to build more convincing arguments and to take the needs of their audience into consideration. We hatched a daring plan. Kate would do a similar activity with an article about Dominican baseball players in her fourth grade class. We expected that the results would be similar to what the fifth grade students had produced.
We planned to take Kate’s student work to the teachers for analysis. Our questions were simple, and we followed our standard protocol: What do you notice about the student work? What common strengths do you see that we could build on? What common areas of need do you see that we could address? What might out next steps be?
In this case, the final question took on more of a sense of urgency because our plan was that Kate would use whatever we came up with to teach the lesson in the next class, which the teachers would observe and debrief. Normally, we follow a standard process to arrange for classroom demonstrations. This was a bold move. Kate wanted to have a back-up plan just in case, but I encouraged her to go with it and to try to implement what we would come up with in the session. After discussion with the teachers, we decided that we would not work directly with the drafts, but would go back and work with the students’ thinking.
By the end of the debriefing session, we had sketched out a plan and a rudimentary chart to use in the class. Kate introduced the lesson by acknowledging the passion and energy in the students writing, but then introducing the concept of audience by having the students do a role play in which they asked for extra recess and thought about how they would approach the principal (a truly imposing figure) with their request. Then Kate asked the students about some of the strategies they used when approaching the principal. They listed these on chart paper. Kate constructed a chart on the board to help them to think about how they might approach the MLB issue. She asked who was in a position to do something about the issue. The students noted that it was MLB. They looked up the name of the baseball commissioner. Bud Selig. Kate created the following chart block by block. Each time she added blocks, she would use what they came up with in one column to go back and revise what they had done in the previous block. An example of the kind of ideas they came up with is below:
|Problem||What does MLB need to know to understand the problem||Possible solutions||Why would MLB want to do what we want them to do?|
|No health care in the training camps||Yewri Guillén story Conditions in the camps||Provide a trainer or a medical consultant so they can get treatment at the camps||Healthier players will play better|
The children brainstormed problems and evidence from the article fairly easily, but they struggled more with solutions and struggled a lot with the last column, which called for some pretty sophisticated reasoning. Kate had the class working together and talking with partners to try to come up with ideas for the last two columns. With a lot of teacher support, they were able to come up with a few ideas. Here are some students’ revision notes from Kate’s class The lesson ended there, but Kate told the students they would be going back to try to rewrite the letters in the next lesson. She hoped to eventually have the students send the letters and she informed them of that goal.
The teachers then debriefed the lesson with Kate and me. They saw how Kate had created a structure to support the students’ thinking, and how the practice supported perspective taking and provided a framework for consideration of issues. They left with enthusiasm for adapting the work to their classes.
This proved to be a turning point in our work with the teachers. It seemed to change fundamentally their notions of what we were doing when we demonstrated strategies. The process instantly became more collaborative because we had involved them with the messiness of our thinking. They had witnessed how the strategies we had been demonstrating for them had been created in response to felt needs in our classrooms as revealed in the student work. The daring plan seemed to provide a way for them to see the flexibility and malleability of our work, and how we could be responsive to student needs. We had laid the whole process bare and invited them to think with us through all of the messiness, uncertainty and vulnerability. After they had participated in this process with us, they began to experiment with strategies. It seemed as if we had given them tacit permission to play with the materials we were providing. We saw the mystery clues idea being applied to the writing and solving of word problems in third grade math, as well as a way to introduce an animal unit. The perspective taking aspect of the letter writing became part of a visualization activity in second grade centered on the story of Ruby Bridges, in which the students wrote persona poems as Ruby. It grew also into some structured revision activities connected to advocacy projects in 5th grade and resulted in some beautifully composed letters that laid out an argument clearly and more eloquently, while still preserving the passion.
What was most striking, however, was not the various ways in which this affected the student work, but the way in which our intrepid move seemed to give teachers the tools they needed to direct their own learning.
We believe that doing professional development in schools involves changing their culture. One way to do that is to create a community of writers among teachers. Another may be to invite teachers in to becoming a part of our process.