A while ago I saw a new post in one of my educational Facebook groups. The author wrote something like, “Does anyone else get frustrated with the fact ELA teachers teach the same basic concepts year after year, but high school students still can’t write a paragraph?” To be honest, I initially sympathized with the individual who was brave enough to share this with the group. It can be frustrating to work with students year after year who can’t seem to consolidate learning. Even though I could see there were many comments, I felt like I had nothing to add. It is hard for me to engage in online discussions that on a surface level disparage kids. Normally, I don’t check the comments on a post like this, but I wondered if there were any ground-breaking ideas shared. I was hoping to see something to push my thinking, but sadly there were over 200 ‘amens’ or other rants about how texting, technology, and/or previous teachers or curriculum coordinators were not doing their jobs.
I kept thinking about this thread and rereading it over during the next few days. It was like a car accident on the side of the road. I didn’t want to acknowledge it, but I could not help myself from looking. After more rereading and thinking I noticed something about the cumulative nature of the comments. There wasn’t a single comment I read that dug into the “Why?” As in “Why do we expect kids to write a cohesive formulaic paragraph?”. There were lots of “why can’t they …” comments, but I couldn’t find one that even scraped the surface of “why” the kids should be writing this way. Before we go any further, please know I could rattle off lots of reasons why writers use paragraphs, even ones I don’t think are sound reasons. I also want you to know the topic of this comment thread doesn’t really matter to me. I can imagine a different stream of frustrated educators venting about mathematical thinking, behavior, lack of parent support, administrators, etc. I think this thread was a prime example of one of the biggest concerns I have about education. We expect kids to do things, but I think we don’t explore the purpose of doing those things on a regular basis.
If we want our classrooms communities filled with engaged learners, we need to “invest in the why” we are doing what we do frequently. And the “why” needs more relevancy than because I said so, because it is in the standards, or a general because it will help you in the future. No matter what age of learners in our classrooms, I believe they are capable of processing highly complex tasks if they invested in why they are completing it. Even if the “why” is a self-motivating, “because it is fun.” I have seen preschoolers build complex towers with Legos and high schoolers use design software and 3-D printers to prototype and evolution of the soccer shin guard. I have seen 2nd graders write a compelling persuasive letter to a principal and middle schoolers write an in-depth character analysis essay. These examples don’t even scratch the surface of what our students are capable of doing. Look at all they do outside of our classrooms. They perform ballet, create Youtube channels, memorize play books for football teams, teach themselves fly fishing, build skateboard ramps, the list goes on forever.
When I started teaching in 1995 one of the first educational authors I read was Brian Cambourne. If you do not know Cambourne, google his name and “Seven Conditions of Learning.” After 20 years Cambourne influences my thinking. I have worked diligently to create classroom learning experience that are engaging and empowering for my students. Cambourne’s conditions include ideas like immersion, demonstration, expectation, and response in order help students learn while working. Cambourne believes that learners will engage in highly complex learning if they see “some potential value, purpose, and use for them.” (The Reading Teacher; Vol. 49, No. 3; November 1995) As Cambourne’s work influenced my work, I realized in order for learners to grow, they needed to invest in why they were doing the work expected of them.
The core of my work is now letting the kids know, discover or choose the “why” they are doing something. Currently some of my 7th grade students are taking up the challenge of writing a novel in 30 days (NaNoWrimo) and others are working on shorter narrative pieces during the month. Yes, we have targets, guidelines and daily goals. And the kids know our district curriculum expects them to work on narratives in the second quarter of the year, so if my administrator walks through the classroom and asks the kids what are you doing, they will be able to explain the “what”, but they will also be able to explain a “why” or two. For some of my students the current “why” is to challenge themselves to write something “big”, for others the “why” is to make their audience cry or to become better at writing dialogue.
I know their narrative work may not directly connect with the Facebook thread I mentioned earlier, but my students passionately invest in the work they are doing. In all my classes today, the only frustration I saw was when it was time to leave the room. Sure, there will be kids I work with who won’t be able to write a paragraph the way their teacher might expect a few years down the road, but all of them know that one reason writers organize thinking into paragraphs is to make a piece of writing easier for a reader to understand. So hopefully, if they move to another state and get one of those teachers who vented in that Facebook group, their teacher will be able to tap into a “why” for them. I am pretty sure if the teacher does, the students will want to become better.