I saved this quote from an email with the title “Why We Love Children”:
A little girl had just finished her first week of school. “I’m just wasting my time,” she said to her mother. “I can’t read, I can’t write, and they won’t let me talk!”
I’ll be the first to admit I enjoy the sound of my own voice. I love to tell stories. I love it when people laugh at just the right part or when I scan the room and all eyes are on me, waiting for the next line. But I also enjoy a good Malbec wine, and I know too much of that isn’t good for me either.
I learned to pipe down in my personal life about eight years ago when my middle daughter, Maya, began to stutter. When she was unable to get through a short sentence without bursting into tears, we visited a speech specialist. My homework assignment was to record our dinnertime conversation. If a normal conversation has a typical number of verbal demands, in our family it was four times the expected amount. My husband and I talk a lot, and Maya’s older brother was a motormouth. Although her vocabulary development was three years ahead of her chronological age, she still had the brain of a three-year-old who was unable to keep up with the verbal demands. As I took this in, I paraphrased the speech specialist: “Basically the issue isn’t Maya’s brain or speech—we’re the ones who need some shut-up therapy.” The specialist was sweet; she just smiled and said nothing.
Recent research finds that feedback is most effective when teachers understand how students are making sense of their learning experiences. John Hattie in his book Visible Learning says, “The mistake I was making was seeing feedback as something teachers provided to students. . . . It was only when I discovered that feedback was most powerful when it is from the student to the teacher that I started to understand it better. When teachers seek, or at least are open to, feedback from students as to what students know, what they understand, where they make errors, when they have misconceptions, when they are not engaged—then teaching and learning can be synchronized and powerful. Feedback to teachers helps make learning visible” (Hattie 2009, p. 173).
When I consider who is the best educated and the most experienced thinker in the classroom, the answer is almost always the teacher. If I am understanding how the students are making meaning, I can adapt the questions, lessons, and interventions. The only way for me to have access to that information is to get it in the form of kid talk—lots of it and in writing, too. Schema, 10:2 theory, and exit slips are ways to constantly seek feedback on students’ understanding.
A friend of mine, Nari, is a student support manager and was working with the kindergartners on the playground.
“Please don’t run on the concrete,” she said.
“Okay!” said a five-year-old as she was running off.
“Please don’t run on the concrete,” she said again.
“Okay!” said another kindergartner. “Wait—what is concrete?”
We laughed because those sweet kids were more than willing not to run on concrete; they just didn’t know what it was. Because we aren’t five or seven or even 15 anymore, we can’t know what’s in kids’ heads or how they are comprehending the information they are taking in.
Two ways to quickly assess schema are to use the quick-sketch or quick-write method. Because I’m not 10 in the year 2010, I know I have different schema for the word clustering that I’m going to teach as a prewriting technique to fourth graders. When I think of clustering, clusters of grapes come to mind, but I ask students to take a piece of paper and spend 30 seconds sketching what comes up when I say cluster. They think of chocolate peanut clusters, video game clusters, bomb clusters, and more. Some have no associations at all. When I take a moment to connect grapes to peanut clusters to video game and bomb clusters and point out that all of those examples have similar elements bunched together and that’s what we are going to do in writing, I’m connecting to their experience and supporting meaning making.
Ten and two (10:2) theory is based on the idea that students make sense of new information by periodically integrating it with existing information. As learners, we naturally take mental breaks to absorb information even as more information is presented. Mary Budd Rowe, in a 1986 article in the Journal of Teacher Education, explains how teachers can provide regular pauses to accommodate this need. She recommends that we pause for two minutes about every 10 minutes (thus the 10:2 theory).
Understanding this idea in theory and actually putting it into practice are two different things. Talking faster to cram more into the 10-minute window or simply directing “now turn and talk to integrate what you’ve learned into your existing thinking” are not highly effective. I plan my lessons thinking about the rhythm of teaching and learning—like breathing—with this theory in mind. Exhaling is the short minilesson on vivid verbs, and inhaling is when the kids turn to a partner to paraphrase. Exhaling is modeling how to develop a personal list of vivid verbs to use in writing, and inhaling is having the students start their own lists.
Each time I inhale, I’m providing students with the opportunity for talk, writing, and feedback. I use a timer to raise my awareness of the pacing and try to keep the new information input under 10 minutes before shh . . . letting the kids make meaning.
These are also known as “did they get it?” receipts, and I use them often. My favorite question to ask is “What was the most important thing you learned in ________ [subject] today?” Here was a response that I received after a revision lesson: “I learned that revision is checking your spelling.” Another good one: “I learned that elaboration is writing many words in a sentence.” Even better: “I learned that a summary is copying down what was already written.”
Yes, my response is to clap my hand on my forehead and moan, but when I’m done doing that, I’m thankful for the informal assessment of student understanding. The clearer I am about students’ thinking and misconceptions, the less likely I am to fall under the illusion that everyone is getting it. I use exit slips as five-minute quick-writes that can be preceded by talk to help students reflect on their learning and critical thinking. Most often I use them at the end of the lesson, but they can also be used as we transition during the lesson.
Here are a few other questions/prompts I’ve used:
• I understand . . . but I do not understand . . .
• One question I have is . . .
• Three words/phrases I heard a lot during this lesson were . . .
• I know ________ is true because . . .
• I smiled/frowned today when . . .
For students who are not writing words or sentences yet, I’ve used these:
• Draw a picture of yourself learning today.
• Draw a picture of what your face looked like when you learned ________.
• I could/could not [circle one] tell a friend about what I learned.
• The important thing about prewriting is ________.
Although it may sound like a Geico commercial, five minutes spent on feedback before, during, and at the end of the lesson can save . . . a lot. After a lesson that doesn’t quite work, I always ask myself these questions:
How did I connect to the students’ schema?
Did I give them multiple opportunities to talk, write, and think?
What did they take away from the learning experience?
How do I know?