Changing Our Thinking: Allowing Productive Struggle
There are many practices from long ago that we need to rethink as teachers. This series looks to bring up those practices and offer alternate ideas that are more relevant in today’s classroom. Today we’re discussing allowing productive struggle.
What is Productive Struggle?
I’m going to tell the simplified story of how I learned to ride a bike. First I had a tricycle when I was young. I learned how to pedal and move it with the handles. I started to grow out of that tricycle and my younger brother could have used it so my parents got me a two-wheel bike with training wheels. Once I got the hang of riding it around with training wheels they made the training wheels uneven so I would tip a little back and forth as I rode. This helped me start to learn balance. One summer both of my cousins who were my age were not using training wheels and I decided that I no longer needed them. My dad took them off and I put on my helmet, determined to master riding a two-wheeler. My dad gave me directions and started running while holding on to the seat of the bike. I begged him not to let go but he did anyway. I moved forward a little and then fell to the ground. My dad came over and calmed me down and told me I needed to do something. I needed to steer or pedal it wouldn’t work if I didn’t do anything. So we tried again. My dad ran and let go of the bike and a steered a little and then fell to the ground. My dad again came over and helped me up. This time he wanted me to pedal. I wasn’t so sure about pedaling. That meant I would keep going and I might even go faster than I wanted to go. We tried again. This time I pedaled and steered and managed to go farther than before when I hit a rut in the ground and fell over. Again and again, my dad patiently helped me up and we tried again. Soon he wasn’t running over to me every time I fell. He was having me bring my bike back to him. Slowly I started to gain more and more independence. Finally, I could steer and pedal and not fall over for long periods of time. I was riding a two-wheeler. My dad allowed me to struggle forward. At no point did he take my bike away from me and do it for me. That wouldn’t have worked out and seems silly to actually think about.
Productive struggle is allowing students time to fail forward just like I had on my bike. Productive struggle is so important and too often as teachers we swoop and save instead of letting students fail forward.
Why Is Swooping A Problem?
Imagine a classroom where kids are learning about place value. A student builds the number 23 with five tens instead of two tens and five ones. The teacher looks at the child and says, “no remember twenty-three two tens and three ones.” The child then fixes their number and now they understand place value… uh… no. Now they got this one problem right but because they were basically told the answer.
A child is reading a book and they get stuck on the word like. The teacher says remember this is a silent e so the i says its name. L-i-k, like. The child mumbles along with the teacher and the teacher says, “good you got it!”
A writer is writing a story with no punctuation and the teacher comes over and adds punctuation with a pen to the child’s’ writing.
The examples can go on and on. So often when children make mistakes teachers fix the mistakes. The problem with doing that is that we are robbing children of learning moments. When I swoop in to solve all the problems a student could encounter how do they become stronger? What did they learn this time that will help them solve the next problem?
What to do Instead
For a long time, the role of the teacher was to help students fix mistakes. I’m not saying this isn’t the role anymore but the role is more of a facilitator of learning. If all of my students don’t understand a certain skill or strategy it isn’t my job to correct them so they no longer have mistakes. It is my job to help them recognize their mistakes and continue to fail forward unit they understand.
Let’s go back to the base-10 example. This happens quite frequently in the grade 1 classroom. This child doesn’t yet see 10s and ones. If they start counting by ones then they continue to count by ones. If they start counting by tens they continue to start counting by tens. They don’t yet see the longs and cubes as worth different values. What if, instead of correcting him I asked him a question that would push his thinking forward. What if I asked, “how much is this worth” holding up a long. He could count the individual squares and determine that it is 10. Then I could ask, “so how many do you have here?” He could count by ones or tens and determine that he had 50. After that I could ask, “now what can you do so that you have only 23?” I could then let him go back and try again. Maybe this time he grabs 5 cubes. Maybe he goes back and gets three tens and two ones. Even if he just groups his tens into a group of three and a group of three he has begun to fail forward or productively struggle. If he continues to productively struggle I allow it. Productive struggle is good and it is so important.
When a struggle becomes frustrating I would come in with some intentional teaching and modeling for the student. Then we could work together to solve a few problems then the student could try on their own. As long as a struggle is productive and the child is getting bit by bit more correct each time they’re wrong I should allow it. I’m allowing students to build understandings and develop a conceptual understanding on their own.
What I've Learned
It is really easy to swoop and save or to remove all obstacles from a child’s path but it just isn’t helpful to them. I work hard to allow productive struggle in all of my students. I still haven’t mastered it yet but I too continue to productively struggle forward as a teacher.
Let me know your thoughts and questions regarding productive struggle in the comments below! I would love to hear from you!
Last week we discussed how a basic reading conference goes. This week we’re discussing tips to help make conferring a bit easier.
What are some other tips for teachers conferring? What questions do you have about conferring? Let me know in the comments below. We can learn so much from each other!
Balanced Literacy: Conferring
Welcome back to our balanced literacy series! Today the focus is on conferring. All the kids are independently reading and now it is your turn to teach! Let’s dive into how this works!
You might want to read Planning for Teaching During Independent Work Time before reading this post. It breaks down how to decide which teaching move to use during workshop. Conferring is just one option.
Don’t forget to stop by every Tuesday to gain a better insight into using a balanced literacy framework within your classroom!
What is Conferring?
Conferring is one-on-one with just a student and a teacher. The teacher typically follows the research, decide, compliment, teach method. First, the teacher will observe and research the skills the reader has and does not have yet. The teacher will decide what teaching is best for this student next. Then the teacher will compliment the reader to reinforce a skill they have. Next, the teacher will teach a new skill and practice it a few times with the reader before the reader is left on their own. This lasts about 5-7 minutes.
How Do I Start?
Grab a small post it and make a t-chart. On one side write notice and on the other side write teach. Now, choose a student to confer with. Sometimes I observe a bit before I walk over to the student. Do they have a book out, do they have a pencil, what are they doing with most of their time? I jot down any sort of observable behavior I see.
Research is the first phase of conferring. Here the teacher sees the student working independently. The teacher can see what skills, strategies, and behaviors the student knows, almost knows and, doesn’t know yet. At times this last part will be the most obvious. Sometimes we research and just see lots and lots the student doesn’t know. The mini-lessons we’ve taught that they aren’t using or the previous conferring that isn’t being used. When this happens, look closer. You can’t build off of the unknown, only the known. Read more about the Zone of Proximal Development here.
I like to observe a bit before I walk over and sit down next to the student. I also teach my readers and writers to keep working when I sit down next to them. Sometimes I dig in and read previous pages in their story or look at their reading log or post-its. After I’ve gotten a feel for what they’re doing it is time for me to talk to them. Usually, silent observation only takes about a minute. I like to ask what they’re working on as a reader or writer. I’ve found that opening line to bring forth the best conversations. Different teachers use different things. Try out a few lines to find your conferring style and see what works best for you.
Sometimes I ask guiding questions related to our mini-lesson. At times I’ll ask what they’ve tried that didn’t work out recently or what they’ve tried out that was a big success. It all depends on the reader. The questions you want to ask will tell you what the reader can do and what they need help with. That is what you want to determine.
During the research phase (and every phase) jot down some notes. Record keeping is so important in balanced literacy… and all of teaching. I like to keep open notes. This means that I will always share my jots with the students. It can stress students out if they know you’re writing about them and you don’t show them what you’re writing. Imagine if your principal observed you and jotted down lots of things and then never shared them. It would frustrate me so I make sure not to do the same to my students. After sharing notes a few times students don’t continue to ask.
This phase is sort of incorporated into research but it is significant enough to have its own section. Once you know what you can compliment and teach the research phase is over… and so is the decide phase! A lot of times this phase happens quickly at the end of research. You’ll see something the reader/writer is doing to reinforce and you’ll see something you want to teach them.
The teaching point is something that the student is almost doing. They’re right on the edge but they just need some tips to finally do it. This teaching point is something you want the students to be able to complete independently forever and ever (with a bit of reinforcement) for the rest of their reading and writing lives. Keep that in mind as you choose the teaching point. It shouldn’t be something that they don’t know and aren’t even close to doing. That is much too big for conferring. Think what is one step this reader/writer can take toward this large goal today. One step they can take on today by themselves.
Sometimes you can’t decide on a teaching point. Sometimes you sit and observe a reader and jot down a lot but nothing comes to mind. If this happens, compliment and then walk away. Plan later for that reader/writer and then confer with them another day. Don’t waste their time. It happens to all of us.
The compliment serves several purposes during conferring. It helps build a positive relationship between you and your reader/writer. We all like to hear positive things about what we’re doing. It helps readers and writers recognize the good work they’re doing and encourages them to continue that good work. It also butters them up to hear something that they need to work on. Let’s be real, we all like to hear something good before we hear something that we need to work on. Sometimes my compliment will lead to my teach especially if I want to build off of the good things that are happening.
Every teacher has a different way to document their compliments. I usually put a star by it on my conferring sheet. Sometimes I’ll circle it. Some teachers jot it under the teach and just know the first bullet is always the compliment. Everyone does it differently. Find what works for you. Below I jotted down the language I might use. Remember, this language might not feel natural to you- try out a bunch of stuff to figure out what works for you. You want to come off genuinely during the entire conference so using someone else’s words might not work out. You’ll get it with more and more practice.
Now the reader has heard a compliment and they are ready to hear something to work on. Our readers and writers will get the hang of the pattern of a conference so after the compliment they know they’ll get a tip to make them an even better reader or writer. I always use language to explain that all readers and writers are good but we can become even better. Also… a bit of a tangent here but I share my reading and writing life with my class so they can see my strengths and struggles too. Ok back to the teach.
Your teaching point should follow the same sort of format as a mini-lesson teach. It should be quick, focused and explicit.
Teacher: “I want to teach you one thing today that is going to help you as a reader. Readers pay attention to many details while they read a book. One thing they keep track of is the characters in a book. They get to know them just like they are old friends and can predict what they’re going to do before they do anything. To keep track of characters at the beginning of a book or series. You may want to make a post-it for each character, just in the beginning, to help you keep track. Let’s do that here. Who are the main characters?”
Student: “Jack and Annie” *inspired by Magic Tree House*
Teacher: “Ok, let’s list Jack here and Annie here. Let’s list down some things we know about Jack here. What do you know about Jack?”
Student: “I don’t know.” Here a student might say something. If you already know this is going to be the response skip the question.”
Teacher: “Let’s read a bit to help us figure out what we know about Jack. We can pay attention to what the characters say and how they act. That will teach us a bit about who they are.”
This goes on until we have a few things for Jack. Then the teacher could prompt the student to try Annie on their own.
The teacher will want to circle back to this student at the end of the book but before the student reads the next book in the series. Students should know that Jack likes to follow the rules and complete the mission according to the rules every time. Annie is more impulsive. She likes to explore and is more adventurous than Jack. Annie always puts them into some sort of danger at the last moment and Jack is so worried. They always escape just in time. Knowing these things about Jack and Annie will help the reader of any Magic Tree House book.
Knowing how to get to know book characters by paying attention to their actions and their words is a skill that a reader could use in every story they encounter.
Teacher: “I want to teach you one thing that will help you become a better writer. Writers use paragraphs when they write to organize information for their reader. Let’s take a look in this story to see how writers use paragraphs.” Here I would pull out a class read aloud or a familiar story to show paragraphs.
Teacher: “You can see that each paragraph is about one topic. It helps to organize information so that the reader can read it easier. Can you imagine if this whole page was just words without breaks? It would be sort of hard to read. Do you see that each paragraph starts on its own line and the first word is pushed in a little bit, that’s called indented. Now, we won’t rewrite your whole story but let’s figure out where we could make a paragraph.” The teacher and student could reread the story so far and add a mark where each paragraph should begin. Perhaps this student is one sentence into what should be a new paragraph, then you might consider having the writer erase and start a new paragraph. Don’t make them erase lots and lots though, that’s discouraging.
Circle back to this writer before the end of workshop to check in and see if they have paragraphs. You might even want to sit with them and watch them write until it is time for a new paragraph. It all depends on how much support the writer needs taking on this new knowledge. Make sure to compliment them when they do!
Using paragraphs can be a hard thing to master. If we push students into paragraphs before they’re ready they use them infrequently and often incorrectly. Using paragraphs is a huge transferable skill. Often we teach students a number of sentences in a paragraph but writers don’t count sentences. Do you think J.K. Rowling went back through her paragraphs to make sure they were 3-5 sentences in length and somethings seven? No! That isn’t what writers do. Teaching paragraphs through writing conferences when a student is ready will ensure greater success and less formulaic understanding. We want writers to understand what they do and why so they can transfer that knowledge into new contexts.
Now you’ve complimented, taught and you’re ready to leave your reader/writer behind. You might want to leave behind a reminder of the conference. Sometimes I re-create a piece of our anchor chart to leave behind on a post-it. Other times I leave a small note of encouragement. I make sure the reader/writer can continue their work as I leave them with high levels of success.
Now… I used educlips clipart here but I don’t just draw like this on the go. These would most likely (100%) be stick people. Don’t feel like your artifact has to look this beautiful!
The lines here would probably be scribbles. I might want to label the new line and indent if I think the writer might need them. I also refer the writer to a page to check if they aren’t sure. This helps to create independence in the new skill.
Are You Ready to Confer?
This week choose just one or two students in your class to confer with. Grab a post-it, make a t-chart and start. Your conferences won’t always go perfectly- I’ve been conferring for over 8 years and mine still don’t always go according to plan. Just try it and then keep going. I highly recommend starting out with compliment only conferences. These might be the least intimidating. All you have to do is find one thing to reinforce with the student through conferring.
Click here to download free conferring templates!
Leave your questions and comments below! I can’t wait to hear how conferring is working out for you!
Balanced Literacy: Planning for Teaching During Independent Work Time
Welcome back to our balanced literacy series! Today the focus is on planning for teaching during independent work time. What happens after you’ve sent the kids off the carpet? You know, when they’re all reading different books and writing different stories? Let’s talk about different options you have and how to know when to choose what.
Don’t forget to stop by every Tuesday to gain a better insight into using a balanced literacy framework within your classroom!
Off You Go!
You just taught a fabulous 7-12 minute mini-lesson and ended with those three magical and inspiring words. Your readers or writers leap off the carpet ready for action but… you linger in the chair. What now? What is your off you go? There are so many variables that could happen next for you and there is no coach in your classroom everyday to guide your choices. Let’s talk about them and ease your mind a bit so that the next time you say off you go you can go off with just as much confidence as your students!
Reading: Now What?
First things first before you can work with your readers you need to know where they are. Perhaps your school uses F&P BAS to assess readers throughout the year. Maybe your school uses DRA. Hopefully your school has some sort of system in place to assess readers. If not, it’s your lucky day because now you can become the advocate for your school. Research the systems available and determine which one would work best for your students. I advocated to switch from DRA to BAS at my current school and it took two whole years to do the convincing but now we switched and wouldn’t look back!
So before you can begin teaching readers you need to assess readers. You need to know exactly where they are. What is your baseline? What do they know and can do independently? What do they partially know but still need teaching on? What do they not yet know at all? You need to be able to answer these three questions for each reader in your class and the class as a whole. Then you need to determine what is the critical next step in teaching that they can work to take on independently and how you’re going to teach them. Let’s go!
One on One Instruction
Conferring is the primary mode of one on one instruction in reading. There are many different types of conferences you can have with your students. I usually begin my year or my unit with compliment only conferences. This reinforces the skills that students know while I jot down everything they’re going to need to work on within the unit. Then I choose what students I will confer with to meet goals and what students I would prefer to use a small group for.
Some years I have conferred with all readers and done no groups. Some years I have conferred with a limited amount. It all depends on your readers and you.
Small group instruction in reading can come in two different forms. Guided reading groups or strategy groups each have their own purposes and structures. It is up to you to decide which is best for your readers. If your readers are grade 2 or above you might also consider book clubs. We won’t talk about book clubs today and instead focus on the other methods. I am going to say this right now so that we’re all clear. Ready to listen? THERE IS NO ROUND ROBIN READING IN ANY OF THESE GROUPS. None. Don’t even think about it. Don’t. Ok, now that you know, let’s talk about each one.
During a guided group all students will be at the same level and will all read the same book. Guided reading lessons last for 15-20 minutes. During the lesson the teacher will introduce a new text, students will read the text at their own pace and the teacher will listen in, afterwards the teacher will lead the students in a comprehension conversation. Sometimes a guided reading group also includes word work.
During a strategy group all students might be at different levels and reading different books. They will be practicing the same strategy or skill. Strategy groups don’t last very long maybe only a week or two, sometimes less. The teacher will teach the skill or strategy and each child will practice in their own text at their own level. Sometimes the teacher will provide the text sometimes students choose what text to bring. Strategy groups will last 10-15 minutes.
Conferring is one-on-one with just a student and the teacher. The teacher typically follows the Research, Decide, Compliment, Teach method. First the teacher will observe and research the skills the reader has and does not have yet. The teacher will decide what teaching is best for this student next. Then the teacher will compliment the reader to reinforce a skill they have. Next the teacher will teach a new skill and practice it a few times with the reader before the reader is left on their own. This lasts about 5-7 minutes.
Writing: Now What?
One on One Instruction
I would have to say that this is the form of student & teacher work that I engage in most often in writing. I do small group instruction from time to time but have found that writers need more one on one instruction. This is just my personal experience. Take it with a grain of salt because you know your writers better than I do… I don’t even know them at all. Conferring is the name of the game.
Sometimes there is a need to pull a strategy group together. When I taught grade 3, I pulled a strategy group on using paragraphs once. Last week I pulled a strategy group on putting spaces between our words when we write. Group instruction should be between 10-15 minutes and should be short term.
Create a document that shows what your readers know and what sort of know and what they don’t yet know. Similar to this one I’ve created below. Please know that these are made up children and are in no way based on actual students in my class currently or in my class previously. I believe it is really important to keep all student data private. The example listed is just for reading.
In looking at this data I might want to do a whole class mini-lesson on 1:1 matching. I realize that we don’t all have a class size of 10… I don’t have a class size of 10!
Depending on the students I could pull Amari, Ania, Filip, and Oscar into a strategy group on fluency. Since these are just made up children we don’t really know much else about their fluency. As the teacher of your class you would know more details.
Michael and Rick might get pulled into a guided reading group together. They can work to build high frequency words and work on their 1:1 matching skills.
Kuba and Piotr might work well in a guided reading group. Kuba might do more of the work during a text introduction while Piotr might do a little more of the work during the conversation that follows reading. Victor could also fall into this group if his needs were similar. Victor could also be a candidate for conferring.
Randy would be a good candidate for conferring because he needs to work on skills that don’t necessarily match the other readers.
Knowing your students is the key to responsive teaching. Try to make a chart like this for your class. You might want to add columns to reflect the zone of proximal development. One column could be for known skills, one for skills within the zone of proximal development, and one for unknown skills. This will help you start to look at your class. You might notice that you need to add in a whole class mini-lesson on something. Knowing your readers and writers is essential to teaching. Take the week and get to know your kids!
Each Tuesday a new post will appear giving you more insight into the life of a balanced literacy teacher! Next week our post will focus on conferring during independent reading or writing time.
Use the comments section to ask any lingering questions or leave any comments with things I can do to better help you on this journey to implementing a balanced literacy framework within your classroom.
How do you look at student data? How do your observations guide your instruction? What questions do you have about planning for instruction?
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