When we’re paying attention, we learn things about our students that we’ve never considered before. Over the last three years, I’ve conducted lesson studies in roughly fifty classrooms with over 700 students. As “in the moment” formative assessment assumed a greater role in this work, teachers began to make some powerful discoveries about readers that inspired very specific and effective shifts in curriculum design and instruction. These are some of those stories:
1. Each time, rather than “activating” background knowledge supported mostly by talk, I invited learners to build it with text. This shift, recommended by David Coleman, proved to be a powerful intervention. In most of these classrooms, formative assessment previously revealed that when background knowledge was “activated” via talk, what was shared was often inaccurate, grounded mostly in opinion rather than evidence, and at times, offered with the intend to shock or surprise listeners. This seemed to have a negative influence on comprehension. Building background knowledge with text had the opposite effect, particularly when the texts within lessons and units were scaffolded with intention.
2. When designing lessons and units, passages from multiple genres were paired to support the exploration of a central theme, concept, dilemma, or essential question. We also ordered them with intention. Most studies began with the reading of a very brief but highly complex informational passage that served to build background knowledge relevant to the lesson or unit center. For example, prior to reading Salvador, Late or Early by Sandra Cisneros, seventh graders tackled the one paragraph abstract preceding this research study. Doing so enabled a sophisticated and student-driven analysis of Salvador’s character. Then, readers considered point of view. “Whose story is missing in each of these pieces? What does this make you wonder about Salvador and about the conclusions we draw about the causal relationship between income levels and instances of child maltreatment?” we asked. In some classrooms, other texts were layered into this study, as learners responded to that prompt and determined whose voices still needed to be heard in order to balance their perspectives and inform their background knowledge further.
3. We also considered complexity carefully when ordering the texts with intention. Beginning with highly complex informational text not only served to build background knowledge effectively, it also provided readers opportunities to purposefully grapple with discomfort and practice powerful strategies that enabled them to make meaning from texts that they–and we–assumed they could not read. I should mention that very little support was provided to readers as they did this work, beyond providing them quality questions and offering them opportunities to collaboratively problem solve.
The number one take-away expressed by teachers who participated in every single lesson study conducted over the last three years? We underestimate what readers–even struggling and reluctant readers–are able to do. And so do they. We also make faulty assumptions about what will or will not engage and empower readers. More on that to come…..