Quick Tip Tuesday: Seeing what students can do

January 4th, 2011

Sometimes it’s hard to see what a student can do when looking at a piece of writing like this:

But in this week’s Quick Tip, the author of Engaging the DisEngaged, Beth Critchley Charlton shows us her thinking as she read this note and she shares what important discoveries she made about the writer of the note.

This card was made for me as I was leaving one school and moving on to another. The teacher had provided time for the students to make the cards and she had printed the correct spelling of my name on the whiteboard. Everything else was completed independently by the students.

This student’s enthusiastic response to the card-making activity was unexpected. In previous writing lessons, she had done everything possible to avoid writing, including going to the washroom, breaking her pencil, and erasing with such vigor that she rubbed a hole in her paper. The teacher was delighted by the student’s enthusiasm, and wondered what it was about this writing project that was so engaging to the student. That’s an important question to ask the student; it’s on these occasions that we find clues to re-engagement that is sustainable. The student said she really liked to do things all on her own. (I don’t mind saying that I was relieved to know that her enthusiasm was not related to me leaving the school.)

The teacher made a note about this desire for independence and wondered if she had been providing this particular student too much assistance. The teacher decided that, in future lessons, she would watch for occasions when this student could take on the responsibility of completing a task alone.

At first glance (from a deficit perspective), one could say that this student has little under control: there is confusion about the use of upper- and lower-case letters; there’s a misplaced comma; the spacing is haphazard; and the message is very short and very unclear.

When I was presented with the card, I was a bit mystified by the message, so I searched through the student’s writing for evidence of what she could do and a possible clue to the meaning of her words.

Here’s what I found: The student
• knew that a letter begins with Dear
• copied my name correctly
• knew that a card includes a message
• knew a comma should be somewhere in the salutation of a letter
• knew how to spell I and will and you
• noticed and self-corrected the misspelling of you
But still, the phrase “I will Mrs. you” made the message was unclear, and I decided that the next time I saw her, I would ask her to read the card to me.

When, by chance, I saw this student in the hall, she called out, “Hi, Miss Charlton,” and I realized that she, like many students, was replacing the title Mrs. with Miss. The intended message of her card was, “I will miss you Mrs. Charlton.”

This chance encounter led to my most exciting observation of what this student knew how to do. (When a teacher keeps her observing eyes and ears open, even the most casual comments can reap huge benefits!) I now had evidence that she engaged in, learned from, and used a recent lesson about how to search the classroom for the spelling of an unknown word.

Here’s what she did: Not knowing how to spell miss, she used what she learned from a lesson about how to search the classroom for an example of that word. Finding my name on the classroom wall, and thinking that it was pronounced “Miss Charlton,” she copied what she thought was the word miss. It’s a great feeling for a teacher to see that her lessons are being used!

While I was delighted she used the information from the lesson, I also acknowledged that her spelling error made a significant difference to clarity of the message. It was important to teach her how to make sure that the work she does to find the correct spelling is checked. I chatted with her about what I observed in her writing—that she noticed and self-corrected her misspelling of the word you, and that she searched the classroom for the spelling of a tricky word. Building on acknowledging what she did well, my next lesson provided additional information.

After searching the classroom for the word, we verified that the spelling was accurate by looking for the spelling of tricky words in the context of a favorite book. This lesson provided the student with another strategy for word-solving and was much more effective than a lesson that taught her only how to spell miss. Knowing a wide range of strategies allows a student to move toward independence.

A sense of independence leads to engagement.

In the example on page 33, the list of can-dos goes on and on. But just because this student is the “best writer in the class” doesn’t mean we don’t continue to identify what she has under control and plan a lesson that moves her forward.

The search for what the student in the first sample has under control led us to a next-steps lesson; this student deserves the same consideration. Without this consideration, even a good writer can start to fade into disengagement. When a child has a lot under control, we look for evidence of most recent learning. In this case, the student demonstrated that she had a firm grasp on inserting dialogue into a story—a very firm grasp. Based on my experience as a teacher, this overuse of dialogue is a common trend among developing writers; the ability to use quotations marks often leads a student to relay an entire story through dialogue. It’s great fun for the writer, but for the reader, this stage of story writing can be confusing!

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