Content is important. It's important as the stuff about which and with which we exercise the skills of thinking, reading, writing, listening, and speaking that we want students to hone. But the real heart of the matter is those skills. If they graduate without knowing who said, "To be or not to be, that is the question," that's okay, as long as they have developed the skills that, when they run across the quotation, they'll understand it, critique it, and enrich the conversation about it.
I didn't always think that.
Many years ago when I was a middle school English teacher, I said to a high school colleague, "I enjoy teaching middle school where it's more about the skills, rather than high school where it's more about the content." She looked at me a little quizzically, and let it go.
I wondered about that for a long time. Then I moved to high school. I taught a lot of content, like Hamlet and Macbeth. I tried to teach writing skills using writing process. Then along came 6 Traits of Writing--that gave all of us English teachers and students a common vocabulary for talking and working on good writing.
Then I started wondering about reading--shouldn't there be a similar kind of "6 traits for reading"? There was: 7 strategies.
We did a lot of our reading strategy processing by discussing in small groups, and as students went off to college, they came back complaining that their groups at college didn't function nearly as well as their groups in high school. I was glad their groups in high school had functioned well, but thought we could do better by giving them the metacognition and vocabulary to identify what was or wasn't going well, to hold people accountable, and to make it better. Thus I discovered Productive Group Work: How to Engage Students, Build Teamwork, and Promote Understanding.
I would tell students what we do in English class is take in other people's thoughts through reading and listening, think critically about them, and contribute our own thoughts back to the discussion by speaking and writing. The one piece I didn't really have words for, couldn't identify for a struggling student or class, or for someone who asked how she could do it better, was thinking.
Two weeks ago I read Making Thinking Visible: How to Promote Engagement, Understanding, and Independence for all Learners (see here for my blog), and suddenly it all came together--all that I've been learning for the last 10 years about the skills we want students to hone in English language arts. I came up with this master diagram that will be going up on my classroom wall next week.
For more information about any of the concepts listed in the diagram, I've listed my sources below.
- An introductory article (Dr. David W. Moore, “Reading Comprehension Strategies”)
- A book on general reading strategies (Cris Tovani, Do I Really Have to Teach Reading? Content Comprehension, Grades 6-12)
- A book making reading strategies specific to the academic disciplines (Doug Buehl, Developing Readers in the Academic Disciplines)
- 6 traits of writing (website)
- Books: Ruth Culham, 6 Traits of Writing: The Complete Guide, Grades 3 and Up and Traits of Writing: The Complete Guide for Middle School
- Writing process (website)
- Nancy Frey, Douglas Fisher, and Sandi Everlove, Productive Group Work: How to Engage Students, Build Teamwork, and Promote Understanding
- Jeff Zwiers and Marie Crawford, Academic Conversations: Classroom Talk that Fosters Critical Thinking and Content Understandings
- My discussion rubric (blog)
- Ron Ritchhart, Mark Church, and Karin Morrison. Making Thinking Visible: How to Promote Engagement, Understanding, and Independence for all Learners (blog)