Thursday, November 10, 2011

Writing/Thinking Smarter Tools: Beyond the Blueprint

source (not my cabin)
Jump down to the SCAN review.

I've just come in from inspecting a cabin we are building in the woods. The two young builders -  bright young guys who work for Morse and Doak - wanted to show us a problem area. Seems we have three walls on the 1-room central tower that a challenge to finish. One corner cantilevers out over the great room, one cantilevers out over the bedroom wing hall, and a 3rd continues the stairwell wall into the room.  What did we want to do to finish each so it doesn't grate visually against the other walls and spaces?  Great question.  I never knew it was a question until today.  I never thought about how many ways there are to finish a wall.  I never thought about how much math there is in building a frame cabin.  Granted, it is not a simple design.  When an "organic designer" draws up the plans, there are going to be complexities. 

"We have so many ideas," grinned Darius, "so many ways to solve the problems. A lot of crazy ideas just crashing around." As we discussed the ideas, he and Lonnie explained the pros and cons of each.  In the process, they had two or three more ideas.  The energy surging between the two ladders to the 2nd floor was palpable.  Their solutions were inventive, each firmly founded on knowledge of the topic (generally, boards and measurements) and the problem.  These weren't, in fact, crazy ideas at all.  What was crazy to Darius was the shear number of ideas he generated in response to the problem.   

I was lost.  I said, "I leave it up to you - just make what you are thinking and doing clear to me."  And they did, translating what they know into language I could follow, providing evidence to support the options they recommended, clarifying counter-proposals.  We made an action plan.

The experience got me thinking about thinking. All kids think - but isn't Darius and Lonnie-type thinking what we want kids to do?  Isn't this how we want our kids to approach learning problems?  Granted, my builders are highly trained and highly experienced. But they are also always thinking.  And they think smart - beyond the blueprint. 

ELA connection:  For the ELA classroom, the challenges focus mainly on thinking and writing about text and on the process of persuasion.

There are writing workshop models, writing curricula, reading workshop models, and reading curricula. But what it comes down to is this: You can not write well about anything unless you can think well about it.  And writing well carries a high premium - for both students and teachers.

It goes without saying, and is outside the scope of this post, that you can not think well about "it" if you can not read well about it.  Darius and Lonnie have skills I do not have: they can read blueprints and wood.  Presumably, our students come to us with the skills they need to access the information they need by reading.  Huge supposition - and often not true - but the essential question for this post is:  What can we do to help student DO something smarter with what they read?  Whether the challenge is to analyze or to persuade, What can we do to help them think?

Heather Wolpert-Gawron argues that all writing about text is persuasive writing.  I find this a clarifying idea. It means that all thinking about text - whether fictional or informational - is framed by the goal of persuasion.  It means that the essay can be re-imaged as a forum for convincing the reader.  This adds a vital dimension to writing - connection.  And connection leads to the need for: voice, style, evidence, explanation.  I have always known this to be true of good writing, but now I understand what makes it true.  My favorite motivational turn of phrase, Writing is problem-solving,  remains true also. The two concepts work hand-in-hand.

Read/Think then Write/Think.  You notice that in the above image Share is also embedded in the writing process. As my builders demonstrated, discussion extends and clarifies thinking. On the other hand, reading and idea-forming are highly individual activities. The best processes for writing require both individual and collaborative thought.

A last point.  It is essential that students push the write/think connection all the way to the level of what Randy Rambo calls The Warrant.  This is the step that involves explicitly making  the connection between the claim (point, opinion) and the evidence used to support it.  Some teachers call it the discussion or explanation.  I call it the So what? Why is this important?  Omitting this step is the most common flaw in middle and high school writing. The second most common flaw is insufficient or irrelevant evidence.  Most tools put a premium on having evidence, but few require students to evaluate it. Good, solid evidence-gathering is essential for any academic writing task.  Beginning as young as 1st grade, students should be asked to provide information to support their opinion statements.  Sloppy thinking habits begin with low expectations.  

The tools: Luckily, there are tools for education that help our kids to learn to think, to love new problems as much as Darius and Lonnie do, and to organize their thinking for writing.  Here is a short list of those I consider to be the best.

  • SCAN is a brand new online interactive tool for "arguing" - I think it is a powerful tool for thinking.  Imagine a RAFT activity that grows organically, one in which all of the roles interact OR in which one student can explore all of the roles.  I was so interested in this model that I created a SCAN session for teachers and students to use collaboratively.  Here is the link to Should We Cancel Halloween?   Please contribute - it is a public discussion. I believe that it is possible to use the SCAN tool to investigate a novel-based thesis.  You might, for example, explore violence, trust, or individual v. society in any dystopian novel.  Roles can be characters or roles can be points of view.  It seems to me this is a highly adaptable tool that ELA teachers should embrace.  I used the free tool; teachers and schools can get larger functionality by paying a reasonable subscription fee.
  • ReadWriteThink online tools include Persuasion Map and the Webbing Tool.  The webbing tool can easily be used to construct a paragraph or an essay.  Their Essay Map does not contain the warrant or discussion step, so don't use it.
  • Not all students think best in bubbles. Some prefer a linear or outline organizer.  Unfortunately, I could not find a solid organizer that includes the warrant.  I did find this neat little organizer that can be used for every claim and easily extended.   Students can also use the interactive Thesis Builder to begin the process of developing an outline. The outline generated by the tool can be used as a model for the creation of a blank paper outline.  It would be interesting to use this tool with a group. 
  • Practical idea for the classroom:  We all know what Word Walls are.  The Phrase Wall is a similar concept.  Few students have internalized the transition, connection, and rhetorical phrases that help them to truly write/think about and through a text.  Refer to the Wall when oral thinking is happening in the classroom.  A large visual of the phrases that can (and should) be used in writing is not a crutch - it is a necessity.  Add to the Wall as writing becomes more challenging. I find it most useful to put Phrase Wall phrases into categories:
    • ordering phrases - first, second, in conclusion - (not recommended for final drafts, but very useful when drafting - have students use them then take them out)
    • linking phrases - another, also, furthermore, in addition to...., moreover, etc.
    • change of direction phrases - however, on the other hand, but not, etc.
    • rebuttal phrases (specifically for "the nod to the opposition") - it can be argued that, evidence also points to..., etc.
    • idea starter phrases - consider..., an important/the most important..., etc.
    • evidence phrases - according to..., when [this happens]...[this happens], etc.  
    • warrant phrases - ______ is saying that, if this is true then..., this leads to..., by
    • comparing, as a result..., because..., etc.
    • conclusion phrases - it is clear that, clearly,  (these can also often be removed)
  • Thinking in the classroom: Activity tools.  Just talking is easy for adults, but not easy for children. It is a good idea to embed deeper thinking about a topic, text, or question in a short activity.  These activities are also valuable as stand-alones to develop thinking skills and language. Some ideas:
    • "body voting" followed by "build on someone" statements of opinion, evidence, or explanation
    • "fish bowl" discussions in which evidence must be presented and evaluated, discussed - here is a nice guide
    • "hot seat" in which evidence is used to question a character or role-player
    • "easel pad" discussions - evidence is displayed on large pages - groups move round the room adding explanation or discussion statements
    • "silent conversations" - small groups tackle a topic or thesis, not speaking but writing and adding to the point of the previous writer - can be done in roles 
    • Last point: In using any group tool, it is important to set the guideline that every student must participate.  No passes on thinking.

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