Teaching and Learning through Conceptual Understanding: an Example

This past summer I had the opportunity to take a “curriculum camp” with Julie Stern, Trevor Aleo, Kayla Duncan and the whole “Learning that Transfers” crew. Learning that Transfers is the umbrella organization for Julie and the team’s work in Conceptual Understanding.

This is not an informative post on Teaching for Conceptual Understanding. For that powerful method, I’d suggest you visit the Learning that Transfers team at their website. Also, follow the hashtag #LTT on Twitter. This is a post about a technique I used to great effect with my 10th grade English students that is based on the LTT team’s teachings in their amazing book, Learning that Transfers. However, for a quick overview, this video below will serve well.

My students and I started the year with a reading of Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories (HATSOS). Rather than read the novel as I had in previous years, by splitting the class into groups and having them read by focusing on allegory, satire, the Hero’s Journey, and allusion, I taught them a few key concepts.

Concepts are like nodes on the cognitive web of discrete information. Where a fact about rocks, for example, would be “Wissahickon schist” or “Baltimore Gneiss”, the concept, or node, that connects them is “metamorphic rocks.” So concepts, at least in one formation, are a type of classification. But it goes deeper than that. Concepts act as containers for ideas and actions. Thus, in any young adult novel, one could probably read the novel and identify numerous instances of identity formation. Thus, “identity” becomes a key conceptual lens to read though when reading books like Huck Finn, Invisible Man, The Joy Luck Club.

In our study of HATSOS I identified 5 key concepts: Truth, Identity, Power, Language, all of which orbit around the ultimate concept of “Story” itself. I then divided students into groups in which they would read and annotate the text in groups with their similar concept partners. We did this by using the social annotation application, Perusall.

About 3/4 of the way through the book, I asked students to create a series of three observations about how their concept was crucial to the development of the story so far. Those observations could also be things they’d learned by reading in this way that could be applied to the world outside the text.

Next, students moved into their concept groups and wrote their observations on to post-it notes (one observation per post-it). These were then placed onto special boards I have for just such purposes (they’re called “gator boards”).

Finally, and this is the most important part, after each group had placed all its post-it notes, groups rotated and visited the three other groups’ boards. There, they read the observations and collected two or three observations about the novel through this lens that they found interesting. As a final act, each group had to leave behind a new observation that connected their personal concept, with the other group’s concept.

I know it is impossible to read though just one conceptual lens when more are given; obviously students were always aware of the presence of the other concepts in the story. But by having them focus first through one lens and then giving them a chance to step back and see the novel in a wider sense, understanding better how their peers were reading similarly and differently, students became primed to jump into making deeper conceptual connections within the novel and in the world itself.

This “carousel,” produced some of the most impactful observations at the end of the novel when students engaged in thinkpieces, a type of “essaying,” through exploring their responses to questions they formed using the question stems from http://www.learningthattransfers.com.

Author’s copy of handout from http://www.learningthattransfers.com

Evaluation and The Betrayal of Learning

A necessary precursor to this post is the beautiful, romantic, and wholly human post that Carol Black wrote several years ago on the Evaluative Gaze of schooling and the effect it has on the human spirit to spend 7.5 hours a day under such surveillance.   What is the effect of knowing that we exist in a system that is constantly measuring us and whether we meet the “standard student” profile?  Such an evaluative gaze reinforces the “school as hospital” metaphor:  Students are “sick”, they need to be treated in order to “meet the grade” or to get to proficient/average (see Todd Rose on this–though I’m pretty sure most of us have seen it.  (And if we have, I next wonder…why are so few of us doing anything about it?)).  

If You Never Try, You’ll Never Learn

Let me give you an anecdote.  I spent a week at Bard College’s Institute for Writing and Thinking in 2010,  in a cohort of college and HS teachers in a class called “Inquiry into the Essay.”  The first assignment we had was to read through 6 pages of definitions from the Oxford English Dictionary on the word “Essay.”  The impact of that exercise was lost on no one, because after reading them, we were asked to freewrite for 10 minutes on the patterns we noticed, on what surprised us.  Universally it was that only one of the definitions actually sounded anything remotely like what we have taught student an Essay is.  

I do this same exercise with my students before we engage in our first writing exercise.  I did it on Thursday with my students.  In my 10th period class when I asked students to share their observations, the first response was, “I feel betrayed.”  From there, the litany of complaints piled on.  And all of it. All of it! was tied to the fact that writing was always done for an evaluation.  Rarely was it done for any other purpose than “Writing to Demonstrate Learning.”  In my own classes, I tell students that we will strike an imbalance in our writing, as most of the writing we will do will be “writing to learn, to explore, to discover.” I will not “evaluate” anything, There peers and I wiill, however, assess constantly.  Assessment–feedback, discussion, hashing-out–is the only end of our work.  And isn’t this what we want from an audience, from mentors, from teachers?  A chance to enter into the intellectual discourse and to see ourselves not as equals, but as explorers on the same journey to self-discovery, just with different levels of experience? A chance to feel part of a learning community with “better” as the only goal/standard?

My own path has been such in many parts of my identity.  I am not a designer, but I think in designerly ways.  I am not a scientist, but I can think in scientific ways.  I am not an entrepreneur, but I can adopt an entrepreneur’s mindset.  So it is for students in my class.  While not all of them may see themselves as writers, they can learn to think in writerly ways, to approach the world with the same sense of inquiry and wonder as writers and to attempt, through language, to figure out what they are thinking and what they might learn from those questions and wonderings that could be useful, insightful to others, even if it is just themselves.

Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast

And what has it done to my classroom to remove the “evaluative gaze” Carol Black has so beautifully detailed here? (She used to write for the TV show, The Wonder Years.). First is a massive shift in the culture.  My students are no longer up till 12AM sweating out their final drafts (which for many was a 1 1/2 draft).  They are not getting their papers back, looking at a grade, and losing the paper amidst the physical din of a notebook or disorganized google drive.  They are engaging with each other in discussions of craft and inquiry and learning that are real and genuine and appreciative.  They come to see themselves as a community of readers, writers, speakers and listeners, engaged in a curious, wonderful, and often intriguing if not always engaging search for meaning.  

Is it always this way?  Not always. No classroom is a Utopia, and Carol Black, a staunch home/unschooler, would say that the very institution of school itself, even absent grades, has a gaze we cannot escape.  However, the culture of our classroom creates a community that is far removed from the classrooms I remember and hear about…classrooms where rote learning and predetermined lessons about what should be retained and what is most important create learning expectations for students that are alien to their own lives; classrooms that remove the joy and wonder of discovery from their lived experience so that an efficiency can be applied to learning that makes the task easier for the teacher, for the system.

This shift away from grades entails no loss of rigor, for those prescriptive traditionalists amongst you.  In fact, we still hold ourselves to standards, still understand the end of most writing is to communicate with clarity, beauty, and understanding.  We don’t need grades to enforce compliance, to measure the humans in our classroom like so many meat puppets.  

And this is all premised on the simple act of grading…a task for which most teachers never had a class, never studied in any depth, never, for most of us (myself included for 20 years) actually really questioned.  It’s just the way we’ve always done things.

(*For more on this topic, the recent Washington Post article on the work being done by Scott Looney and the Mastery Transcript Consortium is a clarion call. Also, check out the brilliant work being done at One Stone and how they shape the Learning Experience around their Growth Transcript and Disruption BLOB. Also, visit Teachers Going Gradeless. )

“Only Connect”: On using dialogical methods to reform the toxic culture of communication

Adobe Spark (1)Today was Sunday, December 30,2018.  As is their wont at the end of a year, the Sunday morning news programs ran their “year in review” discussions.  Face the Nation ended their broadcast with several of the pundits lamenting the loss of common experiences.  Locked behind doors, our screens as portals to personal experiences, or to siloed experiences, we lack the kind of publicly shared, common wonderings that used to create, if not unity, at least a sense of community.  Where once we couldn’t walk down a street and look in windows to see 90% of people watching their radios as FDR delivered a fireside chat, we now sit behind LCD screens in gated communities, blithely unaware of our own privilege and prejudices.

Image result for fireside chats

This is not a new phenomenon. We’ve been on this path since the 80s when Newt Gingrich leveraged the power of dissent and gamesmanship to rise to power and, according to Atlantic journalist McKay Coppins, “turned national politics and congressional politics into team sport” (NPR, 2018)  But perhaps 2018 made us understand just how far we’ve gone and forced us to decide whether we want to return to the sort of caring community that listens more than it talks; or whether we want to continue building walls that shelter our fragile opinions, blocking the voices of those who think differently from us and echoing back the words of those with whom we agree.

Calvin and Hobbes, Bill Waterson

I’ve already made that decision.  Students in my classroom are engaged in dialogical learning throughout the year.  Weekly discussions using the Touchstone Discussion Project, regular Socratic Seminars (I don’t recall where this came from, but whoever did it, I thank you), dialectical notebooks, novel chats, pinwheel discussions (and this example), Literary 3x3s (pages 35–44…Thanks to Dan Ryder @wickeddecent) and the occasional creative dialog  (example here) complete the repertoire. (I leave out here my over 25 years experience as a coach of speech and debate, though surely it is foundational in my use of these methods.)

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Example of an extended, group Literary 3×3 as a reflection on my English Class, 2016

When students learn to listen deeply to their peers (or the works of the authors we study), when they come to class prepared to discuss the texts and issues at hand in a culture of cooperative communication, when they learn that disagreements are chances to understand rather than chances to dig their heels in deeper, when they practice the difficult but necessary task of listening to all ideas, to bearing the silences that naturally populate such conversations as everyone contemplates new and challenging ideas…when all this happens, we learn to open ourselves to new ideas.  This openness develops into a wide and diverse marketplace of ideas where we do not throw rotten tomatoes or nasty tweets at each other.  We toss our opinions into this marketplace so that others can engage, play with, and further develop or respectfully refute our ideas.  Learning, then, is not simply a give and take, not merely the “Chalk and Talk” (though there is a place for that).  Instead, it is a dialogue, an iterative, developmental process in which we all grow and benefit, including the teacher.

(To see this culture far more developed than my own, visit the work of Monte Syrie at https://www.letschangeeducation.com/ )

And while I am an English teacher, such methods are not the sole purview of my discipline.  Courteous, kind, constructive dialogue is at the heart of all learning.  Socrates surely demonstrated this, but the best of our parents or relatives do this as well.  There must be compassionate ears and hearts behind the work we do as students and teachers if we are to reform the toxic culture of our current national dialogue…if we are to (re)learn that we must talk, listen, and seek to “only connect” lest we “surely . . .  hang separately.”

 

How to be Astounded: Volume 1

There are days in the classroom when the experiences my students and I have designed are simply magical, days when the lessons melt from hard, crystallized structures into liquid understandings and we all just float along with the learning.  These are the days where my hard work and planning pay off.  They are rewarding.

howard-zeidermanAnd then there are days where the structures of the class, the routines, and the community are so synergistic that the results are far greater than the sum of their parts…even if it is just for one of the students in the class.

Below I recount, via a series of e-mails, one such day where the class community and the individual, through the method, taught us all more than we ever thought we’d learn.
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(Just a bit of context:  I’ve been using the Touchstones Discussion Project for over 20 years.  I am a member of the board of directors, and I have countless such stories of how it fosters meaningful, thoughtful, dialogue and of how students of any age discover the power they hold in themselves to use their own voices as pathways to powerful learning.  But this story…this is special.)
The E-mail Thread

11/2
Stef, Howard,  [Stef Takacs, Howard Zeiderman:  Executive Director and Co-Founder of the Touchstones Discussion Project]

Last year in my HS English classes I began the process of converting from a grading system (which I’ve used for the entirety of my career) to a “grade-less” system in which students are provided ample feedback on substantive work, are asked to reflect on their work and their learning at least once / week, and are then asked to conduct a “grading” conference with me at the end of the MP, because no matter how much I agree with Alfie Kohn, Dylan Wiliam, and others in the “gradeless/scoreless” camp, I still have to put some letter on a grade report.
I’ve outlined what students should include in their conferences, but I’ve not created a recipe for them to follow in terms of how the conference should be conducted.  They are simply told to use the documents I provided regarding how the system works to choose a grade and provide support for that grade in the form of hard evidence and warrants for the validity and applicability of that evidence.  So some students will sit with me and an outline and take me through their documents, others will create a video in which they discuss their progress, and still others find more creative ways to go about it (eg., an “application for a grade”).
To the point, I had a face-to-face conference with a student who has a speech impediment (stuttering).  He had written out a document and moved through it with minimal problem.  When he came to a discussion of Touchstones and the growth he felt (and really, learning that is felt…I know it’s subjective, but learning is a lived experience, and as I do not keep (would not know how to keep) a data driven record of all student’s definite improvement in Touchstones that didn’t in some way alter the dynamics of the discussion, I’ll simply go along with “I felt…” statements for Touchstones)…anyway, he felt that he had grown immensely.  What he wrote is below, but let me preface it with this:  T___ came to me at the beginning of the year because he was worried about Touchstones discussions and participation, given his speech impediment.  I told him  I do not grade these discussions and only look for growth over time at the personal and group level.  So here’s what he wrote:
“Out of all the things we have done so far, I am most happy with the results of Touchstones.  I expected to not participate much, if even at all.  But I felt drawn to the discussions and thought it might be a good way to initiate some self-improvement.  To my own surprise, I really enjoy the Touchstones system.  I have been a talkative member of the group and my input has always been of meaning to the discussion.  As well I help keep the discussion active and moving forward.  I think I am at my best when participating in Touchstones Discussions.”
I know, from years of speech and debate coaching, that students with speech impediments are often some of the most determined when it comes to the work they do in public speaking, but I never had a student with an impediment like T___’s take part in Touchstones.  His reaction above is a testament to his own drive, something I obviously wouldn’t have known were I simply tallying points on quizzes and tests and “averaging” them out for a grade.  But moreover, it is a testament to the “system,” as T___ calls it, of Touchstones and system’s ability  to promote a space in which all members of all abilities are welcome, in which all ideas are considered, and in which all members can realize growth in ways the “system” of school generally ignores.
Thank you again,

 

Garreth Heidt
Gifted & Honors English
Thought Connector
_________________________________________________________
(Reply from Howard Zeiderman, Co-Founder of the Touchstones Discussion Project)

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Howard Zeiderman, CoFounder of Touchstones Discussion Project

Dear T___,
I am very grateful for your thoughts about Touchstones. At 6 I developed a terrible stutter which continued until high school. Even as a grad student at Princeton I could still have great difficulty saying my name. And that still persists. In confronting stuttering you must master many synonyms but the one phrase that is unique is one’s name. And of course, when you are desperate to speak, as when you are asked or expected to share your name, you frequently bite your tongue which makes it even worse.
My stutter was not the reason I created Touchstones but it certainly made me aware how hard it is to speak in general even without a stutter and how one crosses an abyss whenever one tries. I applaud your courage in trying and your trust in others to have made that very vulnerable attempt. It is far greater than I ever undertook.
You are a beacon for others as in this new world that is emerging in which each of us must insist on having a voice coupled with ears that strive to listen and make room for others.
I look forward to our paths intersecting,
Best,
Howard
_________________________________________________________
My forwarding of Howard Zeiderman’s letter to T___’s Mom and Dad:

Mr. and Mrs. E___:

Mr. Heidt here…T___’s Gifted Honors English teacher.  I wanted to make you aware of something that arose this past week.
On Thursday, T___ and I sat down for an end-of-the-marking-period conference.  As you may be aware through my initial e-mail in late August, Meet the Teacher Night, or through T___ himself, my class is largely “gradeless.”  Thus, these MP-end conferences are like annual reviews in the work world.  They carry a huge impact.  T___ was prepared and presented in a professional manner.
During his conference, he referenced his work in our weekly Touchstones discussions.  What he wrote was moving, and I asked if I could send it to one of the founders of the project and the board of directors (I’m a member of the board as well).  He permitted such.
I know T___ is quite capable and that he has learned ways to cope with his impediment; it does not define him.  I didn’t send his testimony because I was amazed by him.  I sent it because of his honesty.
What you’ll find above is my letter to the board and above that a reply from Howard Zeiderman, one of the co-founders and the man who has led the project over the past 30 years.   I have known Howard Zeiderman for almost a decade.  I did not know what he recounts below.
Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions or concerns.
Garreth Heidt
Gifted & Honors English
Thought Connector
_______________________________________
The Reply from T___’s Mother

Dear Mr. Heidt,

Thank you so very much for sharing this. T____ has talked with me recently about having this discussion with you, about the gradeless system, and about how proud he was of his work and progress.
That’s some amazing feedback from the Touchstones founder and I’m so grateful you shared it with us. I’m very proud of T___ and the person he’s growing up to be. He’s insightful and had a great deal of both empathy and introspection. Here you’ve provided an example of how he’s applied those things to himself and his own learning.
Thank you so much for creating a safe and positive learning environment for T__.  I believe that vulnerability is the key to a fulfilling and happy life and you’ve given him a chance to safely try and succeed.
With gratitude, Barbara E___

 

Astounded Every Day.

In 1999, after just a year of using Touchstones, I wrote the company via e-mail to tell them how much I appreciate their product.  I tried to couch my wonder at the project into as small a space as possible.

What resulted is a statement of my teaching philosophy.  Where it came from, I cannot recall.  But then that is the magic of words–we often know they came from us, and yet we do not know where they came from.

I’ve never been hesitant to utter these words, and I thank the Touchstones Discussion Project for helping me to find them and set them free into the world.  I think more teachers should have such succinct statements of philosophy:

“Touchstones is a perfect match with my philosophy of education:  When we trust our students, empower them to take charge of their learning, and offer them the necessary guidance, they will astound us.”

This story I’ve recounted…this is just one of years’ worth of astounding words, acts, and learning that I’ve witnessed in Touchstones Discussions.  More children deserve classrooms where they can and can be astonished.  Touchstones is one huge step in that direction.

Blade Runner 2049: What to Watch Beforehand

Blade Runner

I just (finally) watched Blade Runner 2049. In the fall of 2017 I watched one of the “prequel” shorts that helped fill in the blanks between 2019 (setting for the original) and 2049.That’s here: https://motherboard.vice.com/…/the-blade-runner-2049-anime-… It addresses the key plot event of a massive blackout that sent the world into economic turmoil.

Image result for blade runner 2022 blackoutWhat I didn’t know until last night was that there are two other prequels, live-action shorts that develop two characters, Jared Leto’s Niandir Wallace, and the Nexus 8 Replicant Sapper, who we meet in the beginnning of BR2049. Here’s a link to those: https://motherboard.vice.com/…/heres-what-you-need-to-watch…

Image result for blade runner 2036 nexus dawn

Anyway, if you’re a fan of the original and haven’t seen the new one, it’s fantastic, picks up on a lot of the motifs from Ridley Scott’s original cinematic vision, and continues to ask the (now even more pertinent) questions of “what does it mean to be human” and “what pieces are integral to the creation the ‘self’?” (Turns out one answer to the latter question is related to storytelling and narrative…which reminds me of this quotation I have had hanging in my classroom for years: “The world is a story we tell ourselves about the world.” Indian Novelist, Vikram Chandra.” )