Learning Starts from an Itch that Needs Scratching: The Big Deal About Questions OR More Stories from Those High-Achieving, High-Poverty Classrooms I’m Watching. (Way to Go, Vogel-Wetmore!)

All learning begins with an itch that’s just has to be scratched, a curiosity that begs to be sated. Teacher questions assess learning; student questions spark it.

The students in these high-achieving, high-poverty classrooms I’m watching hear this anchor story. It reminds them to ask questions. (Anchor stories are stories that get retold to anchor ideas.)

Olaf is a first grader in Joan Lexau’s book Olaf Reads.

The Plot: One day Olaf receives a Champion Reader certificate. He always answers his teacher’s questions and can read words.  The next day, however, he makes a series of mistakes. He «mails» his mother’s important letter in a litter basket because he reads litter as letter on the “Put Litter Here” sign. When the trash collector retrieves the letter and hands it to him, he says, “What’s the matter, Olaf, weren’t you thinking?”

Olaf replies, “No. I just read the words.”

Later, at school, Olaf pulls the fire alarm after boasting that he can read anything, even the word PULL! After the fire chief determines that it was Olaf who pulled the alarm, the chief asks, “What’s the matter, Olaf? Weren’t you thinking?”

Olaf again has to say, “No. I just read the words.”

When Olaf is too noisy in the library, the teacher points to one of the QUIET signs and asks him to read it. He guesses wildly. Queen? Quit? King?

When she says Think, Olaf. What word would make sense here in the library where we use our six-inch voices? he reads the word quiet and sighs with great weariness.

Olaf slogs home. He goes to the refrigerator, pulls the Champion Reader certificate off the door, and rips it to shreds. His Mama is horrified. I’m not a champion explains Olaf, as he recounts all his mistakes. What to do, what to do worries his Mama. Then Olaf pulls a small laminated square out of his backpack. My teacher gave me this. She said, «keep it with you, Olaf, and memorize what’s on it.»

His mother takes it and reads:

Olaf tells her, My teacher says pretty soon I’ll ask myself questions without any reminders.

Students hear this story more than once in their K-5 years. It’s fun to listen to a storyteller and watch the plot unfold with sketches of the various read-but-don’t-think errors.  So, at the beginning of fifth grade the teacher tells the story and then distributes replicas of Olaf’s laminated square. She comes to Angus who shakes his head, No thank you. I don’t need one.

The teacher insists until Angus points to his head. I’ve got ’em here already.

And that’s the point.

Research says asking questions is vital, but to accelerate progress, to deepen the learning, to propel the reading, it’s the students not the teachers who need to ask them.

Ask Olaf.

Patty 9/27/12

A High-Poverty/High-Achieving Classroom Teacher Knows to Find the ZPD: Another Story from Vogel-Wetmore’s Fifth Grade, One I Begin with a Speck of Memoir.

Today Miss Fournier taught me something I didn’t already know. Rob pours himself an after-school bowl of Frosted Mini Wheats, pauses before the first bite and adds, First time.

Rob was in 10th grade.

So how come it took 10 years of school for one of Rob’s teachers to teach him something new?

The answer’s simple really.  His teachers didn’t know what he knew. When teachers either teach kids things they already know or try to teach a kid something he isn’t at all ready to learn, they haven’t figured out his Zone of Proximal Development.

ZPD is the edge between what the student can do without help (Zone of Actual Development) and what he can do with help. Successful teaching requires knowledge of a student’s ZPD.

It’s a basic.

Here’s how using ZPD looks in Mrs. P’s writing workshop during conferring:

First I hear Mrs. P listen carefully to what the students say about their writing. Then she asks questions to clarify and deepen her understanding. She gets the students to verbalize what they know and then assists them to tackle what they don’t yet know or do, but are ready to learn.

Tell me how you revised this. Read me the sentences that tell more. Good effort. You used the model. Here’s another way to vary your sentence beginnings.

You love lists. So does E. B. White. Here’s a copy of “Charlotte’s Web.” I bookmarked the page with his list of what was in the barn. It’s a good model.

This is not acceptable. You can do better. Tell me what you need to do when you edit for punctuation. Do it. I’ll be back in five minutes.

Real improvement over last week: you’re using commas in a series just right. Let’s look at semi-colons. “Curious George” has good model sentences.

You’re using what you know about engines here. Try an engine metaphor. Use the Gary Paulson model.

This isn’t enough writing, not for you.  I’m going to put an X here, and you need to write down to this point. I’ll be back and then we’ll talk.

This is clear, but I can’t hear you in it. I want you to read your writing aloud to your family every night this week. Begin with Max here, over in the corner.

Come to the Opportunity Room today. Put your name in the square.

The touch-each-sentence tactic works for you ordinarily; did you use it this time? You need to get in the habit of using the strategies that work for you on your own before we go over your writing.  I’ll be back.

These Vogel-Wetmore teachers I’m watching know their kids. They know what they’re bringing to school with them besides their backpacks. They have different words for different kids.

ZPD lights a teacher’s mind and teaching decisions like a bright neon sign, every day, every minute. When it isn’t on, classrooms fail. When it is, they thrive.

Rob’s teachers needed a bulb for their ZPD sign.

Patty 9/26/12