The crucial importance of literacy in today’s world is hard to question. Its fundamental role, however, goes well beyond students’ ability to read and write; it also involves students’ capacity to use these skills to connect, infer, and distinguish the complexities around them.
Although both reading and writing deserve individual direct instruction, the act of discovering and communicating ideas require similar processing. Ultimately, the outcome of both is learners assemble their own interpretation (Tierney & Shanahan).
In order for students to make meaning and generate individual perspectives, it is essential to not only provide them with opportunities to read and write but also foster their agency by helping them navigate their thinking. This holds true about understanding someone else’s writing as well as developing students’ own writing skills and dispositions. There are, certainly, many ways to promote thinking in a classroom and beyond, but these few strategies worked very well for our students.
Thinking routines, originating from Harvard’s framework of Visible Thinking, are invaluable tools to create scaffolded structure and provoke specific thinking towards distinct goals – when investigating a topic, digging deeper into concepts, or simply figuring out “what to say” in an essay.
To develop student thinking and understanding about a complex text over a period of time, whether it is poetry, fiction, or expository texts, teachers can utilize scaffolded thinking map called Peeling the Fruit. As students move from the surface of a text (the outer ring of the map) to the heart of the story and core of the “fruit,” thinking becomes more complex. .
When middle school students read memoirs within a book club, for instance, they first examined the skin by describing what was at the surface of the memoir: where the narrative took place, who the main character was, and what he or she was doing. The next layer encouraged students to get under the skin by jotting down their puzzles and questions about the text. The third layer focused on substance: character analysis, internal and external struggles of the narrator and reactions to the conflicts, and implicit meaning of the narrator’s feelings, thoughts, and actions. Lastly, the core targeted the author’s message to the reader. During the final book club, readers captured the global realization of what the author wanted readers to understand from the text. As a result of this exploration, students viewed the text in multiple ways.
In writing, to discover a new angle for a commentary, freshman college students were given a picture of something rather ordinary – a lonely tree or an empty sandbox with a few forgotten toys. Looking at the picture, students assessed their thinking by completing See Think Wonder thinking routine: they wrote down what each of them saw in the picture, thought about it, and wondered about this scene. This task was followed by a conversation within a small group and collaboration to complete the same routine for the entire group to share with the class.
Students began to notice subtle differences, unique to their own thinking, as well as common themes important to all human beings. A tree sparked a discussion of mortality and change; an empty sandbox inspired many emotional connections to childhood and how our perceptions of life change as we grow up. As a result, students made deep connections to themselves and started internal explorations of how they viewed the world.
While the thinking routines benefit students tremendously, it only happens when students intentionally put effort into their own thinking. Thinking requires slowing down and quiet time. One way to give students this opportunity is by slow looking.
Working on their perspective essays, students took a slow 15-minute walk on campus, while jotting down and taking pictures of what stood out to them on the familiar path. Students shared their observations in small groups and later as an entire class, attempting to connect small occurrences to our environment – how it reflects on our times and perceptions about the world and ourselves. Some students, for example, noticed markings on the floor where a teacher desk used to be: when the room was converted into a Smart Classroom, the furniture was rearranged. This sparked a discussion of a continuous progression of the humankind, with every change around us reflecting our desire to get faster and better. As discussions become more connected to universal issues and values, students begin to look differently at their surroundings and generate their own perspectives.
Asking students to generate their own questions is a strategy that holds students responsible for their own thinking. As students craft both clarifying and conversation-sparking questions, they reveal wonderings, uncover complexities, consider different viewpoints, and build explanations and conclusions (Ritchhart).
While reading The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton, 7th grade students were assigned to create their questions about the text, which allowed teachers to make observations about individual understanding and thinking. For instance, when a student asked, “What does Ponyboy and Johnny mean about gold not staying? I wonder if it has to do with sunsets like that poem said?” we could recognize that the learner had identified symbolism, but hadn’t understood the deeper meaning or effect. When another student questioned why the author didn’t use her real name, it opened dialogue about the historical contexts and implications of a teenage girl in 1960s writing a story about rival social classes. Ideally, student generated questions are used as a springboard to facilitate conversations and to challenge one another’s thinking.
Teachers can also build on students’ natural drive to construct, experiment, and draw conclusions. Engaging students as makers helps them learn to apply reading and writing tools and processes to realize their own ideas.
In a college classroom, students were challenged, in groups of 5, to build a model of a writing process to demonstrate their understanding of its elements and dynamics. Random materials were provided by a teacher. After a certain period of time, students were asked to make analogies, label parts of their models with words indicating parts of a writing process, and present their model to the class. One model, for instance, featured a rocket launch. It contained a prototype (first draft) with corresponding structural parts of an essay, a testing ground (editing/revisions), and the final product (final draft) that had to “fly.”
This activity can encourage students to think of the elements, purpose, and other characteristics of a particular genre, explain their thinking, collaborate, and become curious and open to learning.
To nurture literacy stills beyond the ability to write and read, it is necessary to create an environment for thinking that allows for collaboration and easy movement to interact with a variety of people. It is important to make wonderings aloud, share possibilities, and consider perspectives. Engaging students in thinking routines, maker activities, slow looking, and questioning and displaying student thinking so they can learn from each other will build a community of learners, thoughtful readers, and strong writers.
Arina Bokas is a producer and a host of the Future of Learning television series on Independence TV and the editor of Kids’ Standard magazine in Clarkston, Mich. She is also a faculty member at Mott Community College in Flint, Mich. Connect with Bokas on Twitter.
Monica Phillips is a Language Arts teacher and Department Chair at Sashabaw Middle School in Clarkston, Michigan. She is also part of the leadership team for Oakland Writing Project facilitated by Oakland ISD. Connect with Monica on Twitter @PhillipsClass.