Two days ago, I had the opportunity to reteach the concepts introduced in this lesson in Barbette DeMarco’s sixth grade class. I made use of the suggestions that readers gave me in order to improve my instruction and the assessment that drove it. Providing students even more time to talk and giving them the chance to discuss how THEY identified main idea seemed to enhance engagement and student understanding. It also helped me better identify their confusions and misunderstandings better, so that I could attend to them specifically during direct instruction.

Prior to instruction, some students thought that the main idea was simply the title, others framed it as a question, and still others created a statement that summarized it succinctly. Allowing students to compare the construct and quality of their own ideas led to a richer discussion than the one that emerged from last week’s session. I still used the graphic organizer though, concerned that if I allowed students to use any form they wanted to reflect understanding, they would somehow be confused. The graphic organizer seemed to provide a level of helpful organization.

This wasn’t the case.

Yesterday, I spent a good chunk of time talking with these students about my lesson. I asked them to assess my instruction, and they talked at length with me about what was most helpful and least helpful to them as learners. There was overwhelming agreement that having the chance to talk with each other about the process of identifying main idea as well what they found when they attempted to do so helped refine their thinking. They appreciated chunking text as a strategy, and they found my direct instruction piece helpful.

The graphic organizer confused some of them though, and when I asked them if it would have been easier to use a method of their own choice to demonstrate understanding, they all agreed that it would have been. Barbette and I began batting around ideas regarding the use of the organizer, the scaffolding required when asking kids to use one that they aren’t familiar with, and what the real purpose of the lesson was: to identify main idea. Asking students to use the graphic organizer tripped some of them up, and this complicated our ability to analyze whether or not these students REALLY knew how to identify main idea.

I haven’t read through the written evaluations that I asked them to complete yet, but I know that when I do, I’ll have an even clearer understanding of who these kids are as learners and how I might be able to reach them better in the future. I’m grateful to Barbette and to her students for inviting me in and providing such fabulous constructive criticism. I learned a great deal!



  1. This is such a great example of how knowledge can be socially constructed, given the right environment and facilitation. Really well explained.

    The graphic organizer piece can be viewed this way. Kids “represent” knowledge in their own heads by getting it out into the world, like drawing pictures of situations and problems. Helping them do this is part of the goal of education. But this can only happen when they are ready to.

    Since we (the adults) want to make sure this happens, and happens on our timetable, we offer “help” such as graphic organizers that show common ways that people represent ideas on paper. But the problem is that actually blocks the process that needs to happen, where the kid decides for themselves what kinds of marks on paper really represent their thoughts.

    The accept our authority that filling in the graphic organizer is the new task, somewhat related to the other things we are asking them to do. What happens for some kids, is that by insisting they use our representation tool and our concept of how the information is organized, it never allows the natural process to take place where THEY invent the representation that truly connects with their own knowledge.

  2. This is very Socratic in nature–forcing the kids (and the teacher!) to be metacognitive in a way they probably have not been before.

    Where does real learning lie? What really makes the light bulb come on?

    It’s all in discovery.

    The discussion promoted the thinking necessary to realign their individual modes which in turn helps the students have a deep understanding of HOW they learn. This is an example of teaching a lifelong skill.

    We are all WAY too concerned with content these days, especially more traditional teachers. What must be done, and what WAS done here, is reframing how education is occurring, and teaching the students how to learn something, instead of leaving out the “learning” and leaving the kids only with a nugget of forgettable “somethings.”

    I thought this was cool.


  3. Thanks, Sylvia and Mike–
    All of this speaks to learning that is far more organic in nature than most teachers are comfortable with though. What are your thoughts on addressing that complicated reality, I wonder?

    We are very intently focused on the process of formative assessment right now, and in my mind, this is a natural part of what all good teachers do. I think that sometimes, though, we’re so focused on a resource/content-driven objective that we don’t pay attention to anything else.

    Why does this happen, I wonder, and how do we help teachers become more comfortable with the notion that learning isn’t about resources and other “forgettable somethings”(nicely put, btw)? Is this possible in our current system?

  4. Hey Angela…

    I was pointed in this direction by a comment Sylvia left on this post:

    I have been meaning to follow up since that day. One thing I can promise is that I have a nice chunk of people who will be happy for me to share this blog. I am glad she sent me here. I am a generalist instructional coach working in a high school. However, I share weekly training sessions with ten or so elementary coaches. They too are “generalist” coaches, but of course literacy is always a focus.

    I am just impressed to read this type of reflective work by others. I love the level of detail this went into and I look forward to reading more like it. Keep up the good work! 😉


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