Engaging Adolescent Learners: A Guide for Content-Area Teachers (#3)

“If we don’t begin to find accessible text for all adolescent readers, they will continue to fail, only to become someone else’s problem the following year. More students will become turned off to the content we love”
— Tovani, 2004, p. 42

I brought up this “domino-effect” a few months back with my colleagues one day at lunch. I had wondered what items we used to inspire and motivate our learners when it comes to reading. I wondered why our kids in middle school loathed reading as much as they did when they got to my Language Arts course in 8th grade. Having gotten the opportunity to spend a few weeks in an elementary school, I was able to see how the teachers there use their literacy block, what texts the kids had access to, and what would happen to those learners who were not strong readers. An abundance of options floated all around that school. I was amazed and extremely inspired.

One of the days I was there, I noticed one of the low readers picked up a book that was far beyond where he should be reading. He was only interested in that book. He was not comprehending anything he read, but he wanted to read that book. My new question then, was what do you do when your readers are eager for literature they cannot yet handle? Unfortunately, it only took 10 minutes for this young learner to toss the book to the side and say, “I don’t understand any of that!” and stomp away. How can we entice our learners to read, while hoping they continually practice the strategies we taught them?

As my school district continues to work together to align our standards and strategies, I am hoping some light can be shed on this idea. I am currently putting together a writing manual for my district. I have called a meeting this week to discuss this idea that reading and writing must go together and not treated so separately as it has been. I hope this will go well. It is a lot of work, but worth it.

“To ask students to do something on a first read that we ourselves aren’t doing is asking too much. If we recognize the fact that many students aren’t going to reread the text, perhaps it would be more efficient to tell them upfront what we want them to do with the information when they finish reading.
Some teachers think that setting a purpose limits the scope of the students’ reading- that it dumbs down the work and makes it too easy on the kids. I agree that I am limiting the scope of student reading, but I don’t agree that I am constraining their learning. When I read new text with unfamiliar content, I need my scope limited. If it’s not limited, I try to remember everything in the text. I quickly realize that I can’t do this and soon give up. When someone gives me something to look for, reading feels less overwhelming”
— Tovani, 2004, p. 60

The other week I had the opportunity to go work with another high school for a day. I was able to work with the kids, as well as teach them some strategies for better comprehension. As I was observing the teacher give their lesson, I began to wonder many of the things Tovani (2004) captured in this chapter.

The lesson was to have the learners grab an article and begin to highlight points within each paragraph. The learners did not read the article one time through. Rather, they were read to and told where to highlight, without purpose. I looked around and wondered if the kids knew why they were highlighting what they were highlighting. Maybe it would have been more effective if the teacher had asked them why they think they are highlighting those specific points, but class had ended and that was it for the day. I was left a bit confused as well. It had me wondering about purpose.

This next week, my learners will be diving into some research on World War II (WWII) and the Holocaust before we read a play about Anne Frank. I put together a project requirement sheet that simply explains that they are a newscast team, and will be taping a live broadcast on the timeline they are given during WWII. Their purpose is to educate us about the time frame they are researching, in hopes that as we read the play, we can understand what is going on in the world at that time. I hope my purpose is there for my kids, so they can learn and be creative and have fun with it.

“Answers are easy; thinking beyond the questions is not. Demonstrate to students the complex, circular nature of real learning and show them that comprehension doesn’t always mean that you have all the answers. In fact, it often means that you are just beginning to find the questions”
— Lent, 2006, p. 37

This speaks to why I was so drawn to Understanding by Design (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005). By embedding essential questions and enduring understandings to create authentic and meaningful learning in your classroom, learners will automatically learn that it is not just a literal answer we are after. Indeed, showing them the process and the tangents that are possible when we are curious is the ultimate goal. Learners, I have found, do not know how to ask questions. This may be because they are prone to grade speculation and correctness within any content area. They are not all risk-takers. Rather, many learners would settle for compliance and conformity than risk their own opinion or thoughts from going public. In order to cultivate and nurture a creative and innovative world, we must push our learners toward the nature of real learning by demonstrating our own curiosities and unknowns.

“Because all learning is social, it is important to set the stage for students to become interdependent, relying on themselves and each other, as well as the teacher, as they learn”
— Lent, 2006, p. 53

I begin every school year telling my learners that I expect respect and responsibility from them all. Respect goes for me, for their peers, and for themselves. They must have enough respect for their peers to allow for them to learn in a safe environment. They must have enough respect for themselves to be willing to take risks and put themselves out there, as this is where true learning begins. Responsibility will be upon their shoulders, as well as our entire community of learners as we grow together throughout the year. We must listen to each other so we can learn from each other. It is all cyclical, as is the art of learning.

In the four years I have been teaching, I have come to so many new understandings regarding the human condition and how social we are. Collaboration is something that has helped my learning community become the community it is today. We are a tightknit group, and understand that what we do affects the entire community. If we put negativity and laziness into our community, it will slow us down. When we help each other and listen to each other, we become energized and positive. Independence is something we love to see in young people, but interdependence is the ability to work with others regardless of the adversities and differences you will face along the way.

“Many students have not discovered how to take responsibility for their own learning because they have not had the opportunities to think deeply about issues, form opinions, and analyze contradictory positions. They may have spend their schooling acting as compliant- or not so compliant- vessels into which knowledge is poured by a more knowledgeable one: the teacher, textbook, or learning program. Most learning theories, while differing specifics, come to one general conclusion: Learning is a social process and it is through interaction with others that knowledge is constructed. Social interaction also leads to increased conceptual understanding across the content areas. This is different from memorizing facts to pass a test- it is the essence of how we learn”
— Lent, 2006, pp. 63-64

This year more than any other year, I have seen my learners fear the process of learning. The process of learning and taking risks for a higher understanding of the world is not safe. For them, compliance is safe. They want to know the bare minimum expected of them, and achieve this. If this is achieved, they have made it and are rarely willing to get outside of that comfort zone. Without taking risks, they cannot grow. Mistakes are a part of our everyday lives, and they find this to be something so inferior to their lives. I believe that this is due to the low levels of confidence in my learners this year. This group has traveled together since elementary school, and confidence has been their burden for multiple reasons.

Within my grit studies, this year has brought me to question how a learner’s self-esteem can affect their willingness to learn. I began to wonder how self-aware my learners actually were. Did they know all that they were capable of? If they didn’t know what was possible, how could I expect them to know their capabilities? This has been a lense that has been applied to many of the learning opportunities my community and me has been given this year. I have continually had to push them outside of their comfort zone and ask them, “What would happen if you did try it?” or “What’s the worst that is going to happen?” Giving them the opportunity to try, fail, and pick themselves back up without the fear of an ‘F’ looming over them has made all the difference in their willingness to learn. Their voices have been heard, and they are finally finding themselves amongst their peers and in the world.

Lent, R.C. (2006). Engaging adolescent learners: A guide for content-area teachers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.