Inquiry + Gradual Release of Responsibility = A Recipe for Success

I’m a big fan of Dewey, Piaget, Vygotsky, Bandura, and Bruner, and their ideas strongly influence my teaching. The Gradual Release of Responsibility model of instruction is built on the foundation of their work and appeals to me for many reasons. I have found that inquiry plus GRR has been invaluable in deepening student understanding in my language arts class classroom.

Over the years, I’ve discovered how important it is to scaffold instruction so that students are not turned loose before they are ready and able to be successful. In my opinion, the most beneficial part of the GRR model I use is a form of structured inquiry toward the beginning of the process. It really cements the learning. I’ve outlined my argumentative writing instruction below.

Focus Step: I set the stage with providing the learning focus: Argumentative Writing. We discussed where students might see this type of writing in real life, what forms it may take, and a working definition of the term argumentative.

Structured Inquiry Step: Students worked in groups. I provided each group with multiple examples of exemplary argumentative mentor texts in various forms—editorials, student samples, blog posts, magazine articles, political writing, etc. Their task was to closely read these texts, determine as a group what commonalities they observed, and record their findings.

Guided Instruction Step: Groups took turns sharing their findings with the whole class. The information was compiled on the whiteboard. I then provided explicit instruction in a mini-lesson about how the characteristics they “noticed” fit into argumentative writing using correct academic vocabulary. (They were very excited to have figured these out on their own.) Together, we determined possibilities for organizing the information. They used these as the foundation for strong persuasive writing.

 Group Work Step: The student groups choose a topic to argue. They wrote their arguments and evidence in note form and then organized the information logically. Each group determined their best idea, and then fleshed out this idea into a full paragraph that they shared with the entire class.

Independent Learning Step: I then gave them the opportunity to practice and apply what they discovered in some fun, low-stakes persuasive writing exercises (to be detailed in a future post). Finally, students chose a topic of personal meaning and wrote their own argumentative paper.

 Assessment/Reflection Step: As a class, we determined an informal rubric containing the characteristics previously determined to be used for self-assessment and reflection. They shared their writing with others for feedback, evaluated themselves, conferenced with me for feedback, made adjustments as necessary, and then submitted a polished piece.

I use various versions of this model for many topics I teach. It has been successful for me and I hope your version of Gradual Release of Responsibility works as well for you.

The Class Where Everybody Knows Your Name

I believe that students won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. Once they realize this—watch out! The potential for learning in your class will be limitless.

When I was in high school, I started watching “Cheers” on TV. I watched in part because Coach made me laugh, but mostly because I loved the theme song. Every time the singer crooned,

“Sometimes you want to go

Where everybody knows your name,

and they’re always glad you came.

You wanna be where you can see,

our troubles are all the same

You wanna be where everybody knows

Your name”

I would think to myself: Yes. Yes, I do want to go to this magical place where everyone liked me and choruses would erupt when I walked in the door. How great would that be? Who wouldn’t want that?

Since I was a child, I was a good student and well behaved so I was largely ignored by teachers and never encouraged to reach for more than just getting good grades. Most teachers knew little else about me besides my academic standing and they didn’t seem to want to know more. I lost count of the number of times I was called by some other dark-haired girl’s name. (The principal even said my name incorrectly when announcing my scholarship at graduation!) I got the message that hard work and good behavior was all that was expected of me. I got used to being invisible. I never stood up for myself. I shut down emotionally. Even though I loved learning, I never liked middle or high school. I wonder if this may have been different if any adult outside of my immediate family had ever told me that I mattered and that I was enough. (See Angela Maiers’ “You Matter Manifesto.”) However, it did make me the kind of teacher that I am, and my students benefit from what I never had.

My sister’s best friend, a teacher, was featured on Oprah Winfrey’s show finale so I watched when I normally did not. I’m glad I did. Oprah said something that has stayed with me ever since: “I’ve talked to nearly 30,000 people on this show, and all 30,000 had one thing in common: They all wanted validation. If I could reach through this television and sit on your sofa or sit on a stool in your kitchen right now, I would tell you that every single person you will ever meet shares that common desire. They want to know: ‘Do you see me? Do you hear me? Does what I say mean anything to you?” She put into words what I wanted a child and what I want for my students. This is my idea of the perfect classroom—a place where every student feels acknowledged, validated, and cherished.

My classroom climate is based on this ideal. I want every child to know that I see them. I hear them. They matter to me. I spend a great deal of time and energy getting to know them personally to achieve this environment. The first few days of my class are devoted to learning their names and a bit about them. Several years ago I received one of the best compliments I’ve ever been given by a student. She told a peer that the best part about my class was, “Every student is Mrs. Mizerny’s teacher’s pet.” I am proud of the fact that all of my students feel like my favorite. They give me this feeling in return. And I know all of their names.

Finding the Gift in Every Student

I was scrolling through my Twitter feed and saw a slide about “What Doesn’t Motivate?” posted from a presentation given by Rick Wormeli. The last bullet point on the slide struck a chord: “Students spending the majority of their day working on their weak areas, being reminded of their deficiencies.” As an educational psychologist and former special education teacher, this is a practice I have fought against my entire career. With the added emphasis on standardized testing, this soul-crushing practice has become even more common. Is it any wonder that many of these students are depressed and disenfranchised? Does this practice anger anyone else as much as it does me? There has to be a better way. (http://www.amle.org/BrowsebyTopic/WhatsNew/WNDet/TabId/270/ArtMID/888/ArticleID/372/Perseverance-and-Grit.aspx)

There are no easy solutions to providing needed support to struggling students while not simultaneously killing their love of learning, but there are better ones. Educational researchers have extensively studied how students learn best. Unfortunately, many of the best techniques we know of are now primarily used with students identified as gifted. I was enrolled in these gifted programs in school and remember that time as being highly motivating and enjoyable. Herein lies my frustration. If these are the best teaching practices we know of, why are they not used with all of our students?

 

I am known to say that I teach all of my students as they are gifted with learning differences. While this is meant to be somewhat facetious, it is based in my truth. I am a constructivist at heart and believe that all students can be successful in a classroom designed with them in mind. To that end, I’ve always incorporated techniques recommended for teaching gifted learners. In an article on teaching gifted children written by Carol Ann Tomlinson in 1997, she states, “What it takes to teach gifted learners well is actually a little common sense. It begins with the premise that each child should come to school to stretch and grow daily. It includes the expectation that the measure of progress and growth is competition with oneself rather than competition against others. It resides in the notion that educators understand key concepts, principles and skills of subject domains, and present those in ways that cause highly able students to wonder and grasp, and extend their reach. And it envisions schooling as an escalator on which students continually progress, rather than a series of stairs, with landings on which advanced learners consistently wait.” In short—a student-centered classroom that addresses individual needs. Why is this not what we want and demand for all students?

This leads me closer to solving the issue I posed in previous posts–developing a “just right” Goldilocks class for my students and myself. I’m going to continue to develop and provide more Project Based Learning and Genius Hour experiences. This will not only address the standards I want to teach, but it will do so in the manner I want to teach. Since I believe all of my students possess their own gifts and that all of them need motivating learning experiences, I’m looking forward to exploring how to make all the puzzle pieces fit.

Is the Goldilocks English class a fairy tale?

In my never-ending quest to design the “just right” English class experience, I am becoming convinced that no such animal exists. I’ve been trying for several years and have not yet found the magic formula that will allow me to address everything I wish to teach in the way that I wish to teach it in a mere 45 minutes per day. I have tried every new idea that sounds exciting to me, but it is always at the expense of something else I’ve done in the past. Is the “just right” class a reality or a fairy tale?

Here’s my problem. I am addicted to professional literature about teaching. I also attempt to go to at least one literacy conference per year. I consider these endeavors successful if I can gather one new strategy, concept, or resource from each. This doesn’t even include the fantastic ideas I get from Twitter chats. Trouble is that these add up. Every single experience yields at least one great technique I want to implement the very next day. At this point, I have an extensive list of approaches I’ve tried—all of which produced great results.

Among the things I love to do with my students are:
• genius hour
• PBL
• reading workshop
• writing workshop
• book clubs
• Article of the Week
• independent, choice reading
• whole-class novel study
• student blogging
• book talks
• read alouds
• author visits
• iPad apps
• and many more

The problem is that I haven’t found a way to do everything in such a short amount of time, but I don’t know what to eliminate. Everything adds value, but whole-class novels (the foundation for my school’s curriculum), choice reading, and writing workshop are non-negotiable. I know that none of us ever have enough time, but I am hoping someone else has determined a magic way to fit all of the pieces into the puzzle and what you’ve had to let go.

I’ve used two different schedules. One is to alternate a reading-focused unit (3 weeks) with a writing-focused unit (2 weeks). I have also alternated days of the week between reading and writing Monday through Thursday and “something fun Fridays” which involve critical thinking and skill development. Penny Kittle gave me the great advice to spread out the workshops to two days. This would be a great solution for my reading and writing workshop, but I need to figure out how to incorporate some of the other wonderful ideas out there. It’s overwhelming. If anyone has this solved, I am all ears. A great group from my twitter PLN put together a Google doc to share ideas, but would love to hear more.

Thanks. I look forward to learning with you.

Working Title

Working Title is NOT the name of the book I eventually hope to write about Student Engagement and Motivation. I always wanted to call it “You Gotta Reach ‘Em to Teach ‘Em,” but variations of this title already exist. I have other ideas, but since I know less than nothing about publishing, I have to investigate whether I should put my ideas out there in the ether before I do so. Regardless, I do intend to write this book someday. In my dream world, it would be published and I will have a title then. In the interim, I am going to write this blog. I consider it a book in permanent draft form.

 

Why the title?

I titled my blog “The Accidental English Teacher” as a way to explain how I came to this profession and as an homage to one of my favorite writers–Anne Tyler. If you want to know the whole story, feel free to read the About Me section.

Even though I did not set out to become an English teacher, I now can’t imagine doing anything else. The stars and all of my passions have aligned, and I truly understand what people mean by dream job. I no longer have the Sunday night stomach aches I used to have at previous jobs that emotionally and physically drained me. Teaching English, I feel energized and excited to get to do what I love and am ready to share what I have learned and believe about being the best teacher I can possibly be for my students.

My specialty is Student Engagement and Motivation so the majority of posts will be on what I find to be effective strategies for making my class a place that students want to be and where they put forth their best effort.

I hope you find something to be of use and that you will share in return. I look forward to learning with you.