Meaning

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We’ve been working on making personalized meaning from stories.

By “making”, I mean mixing together a story’s beautiful language – the language that performs in our minds to reveal a character’s experience – with our own past experiences to create something new: a connection.

By “personalized”, I mean using this connection to spark a genuine, meaningful self-realization.

This process can be risky.  It involves opening oneself to self-analysis.

There’s great value in permitting this vulnerability though.  Readers who invest in this process are awarded with an opportunity to pause and get to know themselves even better than before.

A suggested path for this process might be:

1.  Ask readers to pinpoint a piece of text that evokes emotion in them.

2.  Encourage readers to connect to that emotion – re-tell a time when they were challenged by that emotion.

3.  Nudge with a “so what?” prompt.  Ask readers what they learned about themselves by looking back.  Ask them to consider what they might do differently when faced with that same challenging emotion in the future.

This sort of thinking routine can help readers make personalized meaning from the stories they encounter.

 

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Something

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My son learned to ride his bike by practicing with mom and dad.  He had all the skills and knowledge he needed, but still couldn’t quite put it all together to execute an extended ride.

And, then, he saw his friend doing it.

He immediately went on an extended ride and hasn’t stopped since.

The impact of peer influence is immense when learning.  This influence continues through adulthood (for example, consider how much you care about what colleagues and friends think of you).

So how might we harness that influence as educators?

A starting point is to explore what our students are doing and talking about with each other.  We can only catch snippets of information from lunch-break observations and hallway walk-bys.  More intel would be ideal.

A valuable source for potential insight is students’ choice of media consumption.  Just as “you are what you eat”, you can be influenced – to some degree – by what you watch and hear on a regular basis.  Shared listening and watching experiences among peers further increases the influence of the media.

Put another way, our students are learning something from shared media experiences with peers.  But, what is that “something”?

A suggestion: dive into YouTube and Twitch.  Ask students who they watch if you’re unsure who or what to watch.

As you watch, consider what might be that “something”.

 

 

Paths

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As students delve into their next novel, remind them that they can choose to read in two ways:

1.Entertainment: readers immerse themselves in the plot, savouring the climactic moments of the main character

2.Analysis: readers periodically pause to reflect on how the main character’s experience relates to their own life

Not that these two ways are exclusive of each other.  Strong readers do both at different times when engaged with a story.  Strong readers choose to start on one of two paths and meander between them.

It is important to note these two ways for students though so that they can begin tracking their tendency as a reader.  A solely-for-entertainment reader misses out on the opportunity for self-reflection.  A solely-for-analysis reader misses out on the essence of what makes reading stories wonderful.

A fifty-fifty split is not necessarily ideal too.  Students should be thinking about their motivation for reading at a particular time.  For example, are they reading a prescribed novel for one of their classes?  If that’s the case, they may lean more toward reading-for-analysis.  Did they nab their favourite author’s latest publication ahead of a long-haul flight?  If that’s the case, they probably will be reading more for entertainment.

This sort of awareness can be modelled by teachers when they select a book in front of students.  The practice nurtures students to take ownership of their reading purpose.

 

ECV

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How can our in-class activities fully support students out-of-classroom lives?

This is a question many teachers ponder as they design learning activities – particularly as we embark on a new school year.    

In order to maximize the potential of having in-class work impact students’ out-of-class lives, teachers need to ensure that literacy content is relevant and applicable to students’ out-of-the-classroom lives.  When designing units and lessons, Thoughtful Literacy teachers consider the following characteristics:

1.Experiences

2.Choice

3.Variety

Experiences.  The literacy curriculum should provide students with many different reading and writing experiences.  These experiences change when readers read for different reasons and when writers write for different reasons – and do so for different durations.  The multitude of literary experiences mirrors the multitude of life experiences thinkers encounter in their out-of-the-classroom lives.

Take for example the following scenarios: being put on the spot to share an opinion when dialoguing with friends, being taken aback when someone aggressively disagrees with you in a meeting, being given a week to prepare for a product-launch presentation at work.  Life is full of different thinking experiences that we need to prepare our students to navigate.

The idea here is similar to what professional athletes do when training. They conduct drills and practice sessions that mimic real-game scenarios.

In a Thoughtful Literacy classroom, students are exposed to a gamut of literacy experiences.  Readers practice analyzing everything from quotes, short articles, poems, and novels, while sharing everything from their immediate reaction to their longer-term, researched analysis.  Writers practice responding to prompts, to writing freely, to sticking with a piece for several drafts. They practice writing exclusively for themselves, exclusively for an audience, and sometimes for both.  Thinkers are asked to debate and collaborate.

Many of these experiences can be built into the routines of a classroom. For instance, some teachers start class with a quick write about a provoking quote before getting into researching information for a persuasive article.  Others carve out time for students to write in a personal journal on a daily basis.

The driving force behind providing students with different experiences is all about applicability. How can we best prepare our students for the life experiences they’ll encounter as thinkers?  

Thinking about our lives as adults and the thinking experiences we encounter: these experiences are often very different, they’re sometimes emotionally-charged, sometimes instantaneous and knee-jerk, they’re sometimes methodical and longer-term. The more students’ in-class thinking experiences mirror their future out-of-class thinking scenarios, the better.

Choice.  The literacy curriculum should provide students with the freedom to choose what to read and what to write.  The driving force behind the importance of providing choice for readers and writers is relevance.

As much as there’s a place for common writing assessments and shared reading texts (e.g. see the “Experiences” section above), the majority of students’ writing and reading decisions needs to be controlled by them.  

Think of how adults would feel if everything they wrote or read was prescribed by an external governing body. Over time, telling students what to read and what to write will not only reduce buy-in and motivation, it implicitly sends the message that they should expect to be told what to do. It’s the latter point that decays what all literacy teachers hope for their students:

We want our students to see themselves as unique, confident readers and writers.  

If students are not given choice, the concepts of reading and writing become institutionalized; reading and writing becomes “something to be done in school”. Providing students with choice builds agency and self-awareness.

Choice allows thinkers to explore what’s interesting to them, to explore what best connects to who they are, and to explore what they’re currently grappling with in their out-of-classroom lives. Teachers make room for choice by framing class as a time for different literacy experiences – some of these experiences will be dictated, some of these experiences will be independent.  This is where independent reading and writing projects gain traction.

When Thoughtful Literacy teachers conference with students individually, and guide them to use the T-Tool and E-Tools to analyze a personal, out-of-the-classroom issue/belief, authenticity is paramount.  The spark for self-reflection comes from the student’s reading and/or writing. That individualized reading and writing needs to spring from an authentic choice the student made. Otherwise, relevance diminishes, and the feel of the conference becomes more of “compliant or coerced student jumping through an academic hoop” rather than a genuine conversation about something meaningful for that student.

Variety. The literacy curriculum should provide students with opportunities to see a variety of thinking strategies and tools.  Just as students benefit from exposure to a variety of genre and topic (e.g. see “Experiences” and “Choice” sections above), they also receive an important message when exposed to a variety of strategies and tools (or “thinking paths”).  

The message: there is no one right way to think and no one tool to cling to, but there are best-practice principles that should be monitored.

This premise speaks to one of Thoughtful Literacy’s key principles that teachers need to teach “the how”.  It’s not enough to provide for students a list of reading comprehension strategies or step-by-step guidelines for writing an essay.  It’s not enough to just show students how to apply comprehension strategies or writing guidelines.

Thoughtful Literacy teachers aim to showcase and emphasize that writers, readers – thinkers – are individuals who go about the decision-making and idea-forming processes in unique ways.  

Consider adult thinkers and their tendencies. There are some thinking pathways that have been reinforced when making decisions and analyzing ideas. These pathways can alter depending upon the circumstances.  For example, the cognitive strategy or tool we use when we are emotionally-charged can differ from the strategy or tool we use when we are well-rested, or emotionally-drained, or melancholy, or fearful.

Thoughtful Literacy teachers recognize this and coach students to get to know themselves by noticing their different thinking paths in different circumstances.  By doing so, thinkers become more self-aware of their fall-back or go-to cognitive pathways when faced with a stressful situation. This awareness helps students to recognize some of the pitfalls of a particular decision-making pathway, and prepare them to be on watch for making similar missteps (if any) in the future.  

This is why providing students with a variety of thinking strategies and tools is key: a menu of options provides adolescents with just that – a list of strategies to choose from to fit the given situation. 

Above all, when Thoughtful Literacy teachers showcase their own thinking as a model for students, they emphasize that what’s on display is a cognitive pathway that was effective for that given moment in time.  In class, students explore different paths, and engage with different strategies and tools – essentially, explore what strategies and tools work best for them as thinkers and feelers.  

PERMA

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    A key element of a school’s curriculum design is how daily instruction aligns with a school’s overall philosophy of education.  

    Think about the many education vision and philosophy statements that schools expound. Undoubtedly, within those statements, is wording that addresses nurturing young people’s social and emotional well-being.  The words may be about connectedness and citizenship on a global or local level (or both).

     A Thoughtful Literacy approach to literacy instruction provides teachers with concrete ways to address students’ social and emotional well-being while developing learners’ reading and writing.  Students benefit from a focus on how their in-class learning will help them with their out-of-classroom issues.

     Thoughtful Literacy teachers recognize that they’re not just teaching readers and writers – they’re teaching people who are navigating relationships, ideas, and emotions.  

    As a result, time in class is dedicated for students to examine the thinking about their relationships, beliefs, and emotions.

    A school’s philosophy of education (e.g. mission statement) can be identified by examining the school’s day-to-day culture.  Sometimes, a school’s mission statement lives only in words on display. An accurate testament of a school’s mission is found in a school’s day-to-day culture: how stakeholders (e.g. students, teachers, administration) interact and how stakeholders spend their time (e.g. what they value).  

    For many schools, academic excellence takes top priority while stakeholders lament that more should be done to develop students holistically. The Thoughtful Literacy approach provides opportunities for teachers to maintain high academic standards while acknowledging the importance of having students nurture their emotional wellness.  

    Australia’s positive education initiative echoes the need for such an approach. The Positive Education Schools Association (PESA) aims to promote the science of wellbeing and positive psychology, enabling school communities to flourish.  Based on the work of American psychologist Martin Seligman, the positive education movement is grounded by the PERMA model. The PERMA model outlines five domains that research has shown to be vital in developing student happiness and overall well being.  The Thoughtful Literacy approach enables literacy teachers to pay attention to these five domains during class time.

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    Put another way, an adolescent’s personal narrative of themselves is in continuous flux.  They make statements about themselves, internally and aloud, and use these statements to define their understanding of self.  Understandably, it’s a work in progress. These statements (which can be verbal, non-verbal, or both) are “tried on for size” within the community.  If the statement seems to be socially accepted, adolescents adopt the persona until convinced otherwise.

    This is why teachers of adolescents have the potential to make an incredible impact on how students see themselves.  

For one, teachers shape self-perceptions with positive statements and language. They also shape self-perceptions by shifting the locus of control to the student and providing them with tools for manning the helm.

    If we provide students with tools and strategies to responsibly shape their own narratives, and provide time for them to practice, we greatly increase the chances that our students will leave us at the end of the year feeling confident and happy. 

Dynamism

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When I reflect about my middle-school-aged students, I see patterns in their behaviours that guide curricular decisions.

1.They are heavily influenced by peer opinions of themselves.  If there’s ever any doubt about this statement, seat all of your students in a circle facing each other.  Present a concept for discussion or debate, and watch and listen, carefully. The amount of micro-expressions and gestures that influence students’ contributions to such a discussion is remarkable.  Adolescents are constantly seeking information from peers to determine acceptance. They are hyper-attentive to how their peers respond to them. It’s intense. These young thinkers are constantly attempting to analyze and empathize.  With this in mind, teachers need to provide time and strategies for students to practice the sort of thinking (analyzing and empathizing) with low(er)-stakes content (e.g. the literacy curriculum).

2. They use a lot of black-and-white thinking and exaggeration.  With so much change occurring within themselves, it makes sense for adolescents to cling tightly to “knowns”, and avoid uncertainties.  When immersed in such dynamic times, it makes sense to clutch the absolute, concrete truth that this person is your best friend forever, or that that person is popular, and that person is not.  There’s comfort in believing something to be 100% true, 100% right, or 100% wrong. There is a definite stabilizing effect to a black-and-white perception of reality; everything fits together, everything has its place, everyone has their role.  Until they don’t of course. Until it’s clear that things aren’t so black-and-white. So, what might be the easiest way to face an action, thought, or event that challenges an all-or-nothing reality? Hyperbole. An exaggeration permits thinkers to see an event or action as a monumental shift from how things should be.  It allows for a cathartic release of energy and emotion. From an adult perspective, seeing a subtle or seemingly-minor action result in high drama may be puzzling. But, to adolescent thinkers, a strong emotive response is necessary as it can release pent up anxiety, and it allows for “grey areas” to be explained away. As in, we (adolescents) know the way things ought to be, and now this action has occurred that challenges our understanding of reality.  The action is a sensational occurrence worthy of hyperbole – let’s get together and discuss it! For adolescent thinkers, who have their pattern-identifying part of the brain under construction, it’s challenging to see peer actions for what they truly are: evidence that black-and-white thinking does not fit the human experience.

3.They’re still kids after all.  At times, adolescents may exhibit some characteristics of an adult thinker, but they usually reveal juvenile thinking tendencies once a sustained amount of time is spent with them.  For teachers, they see this in their students’ daily conversations, decisions, and reasoning. Keeping this in mind is critical. Teachers need to not only have empathy for students who are in this dynamic developmental stage, but they must also see the importance of teaching these young minds strategies and tools that will help them reason and feel (e.g. tools and strategies that will help them navigate the thoughts and feelings they are experiencing).

    With this in mind, it’s natural to ask: how can we bring what we intuitively know about the adolescent mindset and tie it together with our professional, best-practice training?

Tsunami

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Consider all of the information that a child or teenager encounters as they enter their school on a typical day.  It’s an information tsunami.

In addition to the verbal and non-verbal information they receive, they also aim to make meaning from the actions and inactions they perceive.  An additional wave of information comes from a variety of social media sources – presented to them in-the-moment and/or earlier that morning and/or even the night before.  That latter information layer is something us pre-internet folk didn’t have to regularly process when we were their age.

So how can we support these young minds stay afloat and not get washed out into a sea of knee-jerk opinions and weakly-supported beliefs?  

One way is to utilize class time for students to reflect on their thinking habits.  For example, when students analyze while reading non-narrative, informational texts, teachers can point out the applicability of those analysis skills to students’ personal lives. 

With this in mind, non-narrative reading instruction is explicitly framed for students so that they understand its purpose and value:

1.As non-narrative readers, we form ideas, opinions, and beliefs based on sound evidence.  We can use these same thinking strategies when we’re out of the classroom to form ideas, opinions, and beliefs. 

2.As non-narrative readers, we consider the credibility and motivation of sources.  We can use these same thinking strategies to consider the credibility and motivation of out-of-the-classroom sources (e.g. friends, parents, and other community members). 
Although most of students’ out-of-the-classroom information is not received in text form (aside from text messages received on devices), the routines young minds use to analyze information while reading, can be similar to how they analyze any sort of sensory input.

The goal of literacy instruction now becomes: to give students space and time to examine their thinking routines upon receiving information – regardless of whether that information is coming to them in text form or otherwise.  

We want students to be self-aware as thinkers, to notice any unsound thinking habits.

Brain

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   Patricia Wolfe’s Brain Matters: Translating Research into Classroom Practice explains three brain facts that heavily influenced how I changed my instructional approach to better support my adolescent student thinkers:

  1. Practice is important. As the brain develops, it makes decisions about which neural connections to keep and which to discard.  Connections that are repeatedly used are kept, while others that are not reinforced with practice are removed.  I liken this to what athlete’s call “muscle memory”.   Athletes repeat a movement until the neural connection is strong and the neural pathway flows smoothly.  Research has shown that the formation of this network of neural connections is not fully completed until between the ages of 20 to 25 – with extensive construction occurring during the adolescent years.  This is notable for adolescent learners.   My first a-ha: adolescents need explicit instruction about ways to think as well as in-class time to practice thinking strategies.  By doing so, we’re nurturing important neural connections and preparing these young brains to handle similar thinking situations outside of the classroom.

 

  1.  The time is now. A study out of the University of California, Los Angeles, showed significant change occurs in the frontal lobes of teenagers when compared to young adults.  The frontal lobes (particularly the spot directly behind the forehead known as the prefrontal cortex) are the executive decision-making parts of the brain.  As Wolfe puts it “[adult] individuals with damage to this part of the brain often know what they are supposed to do but are unable to do it.”  This struck me as a fitting description for many of my adolescent students.  With their frontal lobes “under construction”, they seemed to know what they should do, but were unable to follow through.   They seemed flummoxed by what they were experiencing.  My second a-ha: with so much ongoing growth in the frontal lobes of adolescents, Middle School teachers need to take immediate action; it would be a disservice not to.  During this dynamic brain development stage, adolescents need explicit support and thinking instruction more than ever.  By not doing so, we’re setting this population up to potentially feel confused, anxious, and out of control of their own thoughts and actions.

 

  1. Make reflective reasoning a habit. While the prefrontal cortex is used for executive decision-making, another part of the brain, the amygdala, is designed for reactive, emotional responses.  A team of researchers from Harvard Medical School’s McLean Hospital found that adolescents relied more on the amygdala than the prefrontal cortex when making decisions and forming opinions.  In other words, reflective reasoning (thinking about the quality of evidence behind decisions, opinions, and beliefs) can be a struggle for adolescents since their brains opt to utilize impulse and emotion to make decisions and form opinions.  My third a-ha: adolescents need and deserve dedicated in-class time for reflective reasoning.  Reflective reasoning should be a key component of daily instruction in order to counterbalance the dominant amygdala’s influence.  A supportive classroom environment is essential for this.  It provides a safe place for young minds to practice such thinking and be open to analyzing the evidence behind beliefs.  If we’re doing reflective reasoning with our students on a regular basis and we explicitly emphasize the need for this way of thinking, students gain valuable intellectual experiences.  These repeated experiences nurture sound intellectual habits.

    With these facts at the forefront of my decision-making, I endeavoured to reshape my instructional practice.  My aim was to provide students with lessons that were relevant, practical, and purposeful – lessons that provided strategies for students that they could immediately apply to their own lives.  This is the Thoughtful Literacy approach.

Mood.

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The daily peaks and valleys of adolescence can have a significant impact on mood – both for teens themselves, and for the adults who regularly interact with them.

Adults who support this pivotal time in a young person’s life are often guided by two key principles:

1.Compassion: to be supportive, an adult must genuinely empathize with the adolescent experience of managing swings in emotion. Supportive adults truly understand that this time in a young person’s life can be intense, confusing, and exhausting.

2.Perspective: to be supportive, an adult must be the voice that synthesizes the minutia of the day, and connects it to an overarching theme (ideally, a positive theme about positive behaviour)

For teachers, these principles are notable as we aim to prepare students for learning.

We can only expect academic engagement when students feel connected to teachers who are guided by these principles.

 

Purpose

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Adapting to government-mandated curriculum changes or a change in school vision or even a change in schools altogether can leave teachers pondering about purpose.

Why are we teaching this and not that?

For literacy instruction, an overarching vision of purpose is vital for maintaining consistency for students.  In a Thoughtful Literacy classroom, a teacher keeps the following premise at the forefront when conversing with students, making decisions about curriculum priorities, and when designing and implementing lessons:

 

The thinking students do as readers and writers prepares them for the thinking they do in their out-of-the-classroom lives.

 

For reading instruction, this premise can reveal itself in the following ways:

 

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Led by a clear vision of one’s instructional purpose, teachers feel confident and become resistant to external stressors that might jeopardize student learning.

Led by a clear, purposeful vision, teachers protect students from a disjointed classroom experience.