How many times have you heard a student say “I don’t know what we’re doing!” even after you’ve explained your instructions several times, with directions as clear and pristine as a crisp fall lake on a windless day? How many times has that led to frustration? If you’re a teacher, I’m guessing your answer to both of these questions is “many.” But guess what? This year, I’ve discovered a way of thinking that will (a) prevent this from happening in the first place and (b) make you a better teacher in the process. It’s as simple as changing the word “what” to the word “how.”

I’d like to start this post by including two real life artifacts from my own classroom that I used this week. Below, you’ll see the self-selecting, self-reflecting, formative assessment on essay progress that I passed around for my juniors to sign, regarding their character analysis essay for The Crucible.  I used their responses to prioritize the order of writing conferences that I conducted with students, starting with the students on the right side of the spectrum.


This second shot is from my chalkboard in the front of class, where I was teaching my AP Literature and Composition students how to determine the quality of the textual evidence they chose to use in their essay drafts on Shakespeare’s Hamlet. (Click on the image to see it in a larger size.)
20141027_084922Both of these simple, day to day tools represent what has been the biggest gem of learning that I’ve uncovered this year as a teacher. That gem is this: learning is all about the process. Focusing on what we want students to do is not enough. Telling them what to do will not help students grow. But when we show them how to do what we ask, learners will grow in their ways of knowing how to approach nearly any task.

For example, with my junior writers, I could tell them, “Take a second to think about where you’re at with your essay right now. If you are feeling unsure or lost, make sure you come talk to me and I will give you feedback.” If I say that, I’ve told them exactly what they need to do during our writing workshop. The problem is, though, that some of them literally do not know how to evaluate their level of comfort with their writing. So instead, I show them how, by explaining example writing scenarios and pointing out where that writer might rate him or herself on the series of smiley faces that you see above. Giving students the emoticon spectrum to help identify their drafting status shows them that elevated jargon isn’t necessary when communicating with an advisor, but that honesty informed by the emotion associated with the task is the appropriate way to enter a writing conference. I’ve had many students in the past who have declared that things are “going fine”, but leave me mystified when they have nothing to turn in on the due date. By providing students with the thinking process for evaluating whether they need help or not, I catch more kids who would otherwise get lost and I’m able to provide assistance in a much more sensitive, authentic way.

With the AP students, I found that I kept repeating comments on their writing regarding their textual evidence. Too much of the time, quotations were used simply to summarize or they were inadequate in terms of proving the thesis statement in a nuanced, insightful fashion. “Why do they keep doing this?” I thought to myself, “I’ve told them a million times to not use textual evidence for the purpose of summary!” But, again, I just kept hammering what I wanted them to do, assuming that they already knew how it could be done. So, one day, I stood in front of the chalkboard and explained the thinking process I would use to check my textual evidence to make sure that it was effective. The resulting flowchart is now something copied in their notebooks to help them self-check. My experienced thought process has now been shared with my students… and as a result, their writing sounds much more experienced, too.

This has been the theme of my year so far: less “what?”, more “how?” Each time I make a process transparent (a way of approaching a prompt, the method I use to decide what to read next, the choices I make when I’m struggling with a text to break it down, anything!), my students imitate, improvise, and succeed. It’s so simple.

I’m learning now–most of the time when my students don’t seem to know what to do, even when my instructions are crystal clear, I’m completely misdiagnosing the problem.

They DO know what to do. They just don’t know how. Show them how. And watch everything fall into place. 🙂