Beautiful Corrections

(Sorry about the delay in today’s post. Yesterday afternoon, I took an early minute, and my wife and I went to view Australian Aboriginal art at the Tandanya National Aboriginal Cultural Institute in Adelaide, had a drink in a pub and then had a long and relaxing dinner at a local ethically-sourced Italian restaurant with a wickedly good pizza oven and a great Langhe Nebbiolo. This didn’t leave much time for blogging. Work/life balance-wise, however, it was a winner.)

Yesterday, I referred to an article on New Dorp high school and I wanted to bring out one of the other things that I really liked about their approach to a ‘get the kids writing’ program. As the article says, thinking, reading and speaking are all interconnected and are reinforced through sound instruction in good writing. This immediately leads to the conclusion that teaching people to write is going to lead to improvements across the board and, as a Probationary-plated social constructivist, I immediately think about constructive interaction between students based on great confidence in speaking, fuelled through a greater depth of understanding and ability to express your ideas.

The article discusses this, because classroom discussion became an opportunity for students to listen, think and be more precise in the way that they discussed their ideas. This can be a trap, as most educators know far too well, if students feel that they have to say something rather than that they have to say something that they can defend, explain or shows signs of reflection. (We see this in writing, too. “What I did on my holiday” is a relatively unassailable personal anecdote with no great guarantee of depth or need for defensible statement, yet “What was the most useful thing that you did on your holiday?” requires thought, comparison, reflection and review. To a degree, obviously. I’m not going to start early writers on a detailed comparison of Yves Klein blue and its apparent lifting from Picasso…)

It is very easy to take classroom discussion in the wrong way. You don’t always have to be cheerleadingly positive (warning: not a real adjective), but framing a critique or a question makes a big difference when you want to encourage discussion and build confidence. That’s why I like what I’m reading about in New Dorp (and I’ve seen elsewhere to a lesser degree), in that the students have a poster at the from of the class that lists ways to respond. For example:

  • I agree/disagree with ___ because …
  • I have a different opinion …
  • I have something to add …
  • Can you explain your answer?
  • I agree with ___ but I disagree with your conclusion (because) …

This is a far cry from the passive responses to a tired questioning approach of “Now, hands up if you think that John is correct”. With this framing, students are encouraged to contribute, contest and expand, but using a formal approach to the argument that reduces dependency upon ad homimen or genetic fallacy issues: we have to address what was said rather than the person or the group that it came from. It’s very easy to say “You’re wrong” or “That’s stupid” and it’s an easy answer that completely undermines what the faculty at New Dorp are trying to achieve.

It’s easy to see how this approach is useful in the higher educational sphere, especially once we get into student-based activities, because we can’t always be the facilitators ourselves, so the training of our sessional staff becomes crucial. One challenge for our sessional staff is how to respond to questions without ending up giving the answer away immediately or doing the work for the student. We expend a lot of time on training (Katrina does a great deal of work in this area) and this simple set of guiding questions and framing, as a training device for our staff as well as a template for our students, will allow us to keep the important lessons fresh and in everyone’s mind. We focus a lot on Contributing Student Pedagogy (CSP), a pedagogy that encourages students to contribute to other students’ learning, including valuing other contributions, generally using a high degree of role flexibility (sometimes you lead, sometimes you support and sometimes you organise, for example). We have a paper in the upcoming special issue of Computer Science Education on CSP, where we talk about this at length, but a simple semi-formal structuring of questions to assist people in thinking about how they are about to contribute or evaluate someone else’s contribution is a valuable component of this kind of approach.

To return to what New Dorp is attempting to do, these questions encourage all participants to think about the why and the because and how their contribution will work in with what has already been said. However, and this is non-trivial, having a semi-scripted start to a response also encourages the correct use of language, familiarity with key phrases and the correct use of modifiers and conjunctions. One of the issues identified at New Dorp was that poor writers couldn’t pull a U-turn in a sentence with much success. Although, despite, and words like that were effectively a mystery – sentences had to be artificially short, tightly focussed and lacking in complexity. Such a limitation greatly limits the degree of expressiveness available to the writer. Sentences don’t have to be long, but they have to be long enough. Sentences don’t have to contain long words, but they have to contain the right words. Ideas need to be expressed in a way that makes them easy to understand but this requires practice, practice and even more practice.

The script on the poster at the front is not a rigid proscription. The poster doesn’t say “Explain the use of adjectives in the sentence.” Instead, it provides a hook that a student can hang their own ideas upon, the leading sentence that starts the invasion of text into the bleak white space of a new page. It encourages discussion, support, interaction and the development of thought.

It appears that New Dorp’s approach is working. Students are improving. Students can write. Students can communicate their thoughts to other people successfully. They can use language. What a great improvement!

4 Comments on “Beautiful Corrections”

  1. lizphillips says:

    The writing response prompts really work. I have a set of seven cards, each with a selection of sentence starters that students can use to elaborate their thoughts. Categories: Make a Comment, Clarify Something, Make a Connection, Summarize, Predict Something and, Ask a Question., This is a very powerful best practice that makes a tremendous difference in a classroom full of students who don’t know what to write…don’t know how to begin. My students are learning to think first–before speaking or writing. They are beginning to see the value of formulating response, even vaguely, in one’s mind before you do anything else.

    Like what you have posted here. Check out the National Writing Project sometime.


  2. I will look at these in the classroom. They look like they have merit and worth acting upon to help students construct and support opinions in reasoned ways.


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