Building from Student Background
The unit will begin with a pre-assessment, asking the students to compose a journal about all the ways they solve problems with a person and all the ways they confront a math problem they initially perceive as difficult. They will be asked to describe how they feel and what they can do or what they see others do or experience. This will provide a basis for a whole group introductory discussion on “problem-solving”, rooted in their initial understanding of how they solve and watch others solve everyday problems. From this discussion, lists of strategies can begin to take shape and initial self-regulated learning/heroic trait vocabulary can emerge. This will ensure that the concepts come from student background knowledge and experience, as opposed to being directly introduced without meaningful context. This discussion will also provide a concrete set of examples for students to connect to as they begin to listen to and read unit texts. As the unit’s goal is to develop these character traits in students, this strategy of building on known concepts and broadening their perhaps limited definitions will promote student retention and implementation of the strategies in daily life and learning challenges. Such emphasis on what students know and can connect to should be stressed in dialogue and action throughout the unit’s duration.
The list of strategies will eventually take the shape of a large matrix style graphic organizer (see attached model), linking new words to “student definitions” and dictionary definitions, so the known is graphically represented next to its alternative name and formal definition. This matrix will slowly evolve throughout the course of the unit, connecting this prior knowledge to new student observations of the character traits in life, texts read, and themselves. The class will add to the organizer under teacher direction, but it will also be a constantly evolving representation as post-its will be available for students to attach with observations of the specified traits in other texts, situations, or themselves. The teacher will also encourage the class to record learning moments when they implemented one or more of the strategies or observed someone implementing one of the strategies in classroom learning challenges or to solve a social problem. The matrix will stand as a graphic reminder of the concrete connection between text and life, what we know and what we’re learning, as well as intellectual and social problem-solving.
The New Haven fourth grade curriculum stresses the use of meta-cognition, i.e. the awareness and discussion of one’s own strategy use when reading or experiencing a text. Nancy Boyles, a professor at Southern Connecticut State University, has devised a set of six strategies students are trained to use when reading and thinking: guessing, connecting, picturing, wondering, noticing, and figuring out. This unit will enrich student understanding of making connections and figuring out as they not only connect texts to their own lives, but also examine a number of texts of various genres that share heroic characters who employ similar strategies to solve their problems.
Reading and Discussing Connections
The use of both fiction and non-fiction texts responds to a district-wide focus on expository text comprehension, (an area of weakness on the Connecticut State Mastery Test) and bridges my students’ world back to the real-world application of such heroic traits. I have also included several different genres of fiction including a fairy tale (Little Red Riding Hood/Little Red Cap), a tall tale (Pippi to the Rescue), a children’s urban contemporary detective novel (The Spray Paint Mystery), and a dark comic serial novel (A Series of Unfortunate Events: “The Bad Beginning”) to provide a diverse set of heroes and heroines.
The unit begins with a twist on an old children’s favorite, as the class reads Little Red Cap, the Grimm version of Little Red Riding Hood. In this selection, the children will be familiar with the story, so the differences and perhaps the concepts of self-regulated learning will be more readily detectable. Basic comprehension won’t be a goal as most already understand the plot line. This version provides an excellent example of a child who, with the help of an elder, some organization, and persistence, defeats her enemy the second time she faces him. The theme of her “second chance” opens up a discussion about challenges and problem solving over a period of time, as opposed to the illusion of instant perfection that plagues young children’s self-perceptions.
From Little Red Cap we segue into the tale of Pippi to the Rescue, where more themes are illustrated through a dynamic fictional heroine who bears strong resemblance to a child, but displays many mature strategic thinking patterns due to her life spent raising herself. The tale holds detailed examples of organization as Pippi plans her rescue route. She persists in spite of the nay-saying crowd, and displays a strong sense of responsibility as she saves the two burning boys as the irresponsible crowd looks on. She sets a goal, goes about planning her procedure, implements her plan, and works until the boys are saved. It’s a great example in a fictive setting sure to hold young attention spans and focus strategic discussion afterwards.
To maintain focus and have a daily reminder of our fictional literary heroes and heroines, the teacher can choose to read the chapters of The Bad Beginning aloud on a daily basis. This dark tale of three unlucky orphans is a humorous account of their strength in spite of adverse circumstances. They must constantly think their way out of dilemmas and all rewards seem almost impossible to attain. Nevertheless, as a group, they band together, determined to escape and triumph over their evil guardian, Count Olaf, using their self-regulated learning behaviors. They persist in spite of atrocious living conditions, organize when preparing meals and cleaning on demand, set the unified goal to get out of each awful situation, seek out the resources of books and knowledgeable adults when they need help or don’t understand something, and take tremendous responsibility for the care and well-being of each other at all times. The daily reflection on the orphans’ metacognitive processes will reinforce the unit’s goals and serve as a read aloud - a crucial component of a balanced literacy program which ensures that all students are exposed to several different types of reading often if not daily.
The final fiction title, The Spray Paint Mystery, is a simple chapter book in an urban setting where two elementary school students, a girl and a boy, set out to solve the mystery of who graffitied their school yard. This is an accessible tale where each self-regulated learning tool is displayed in various events. Cameron and Tarann persistently pursue clues regardless of all the pressure to fail from adults and peers. They organize their evidence, feel responsible for what has happened, set the goal of solving the crime and set incremental goals to move toward success. Both protagonists constantly monitor their progress and fully utilize outside resources at school, home, and the community. Each child can have the opportunity to witness self-regulated learning in various characters, and such an array will also increase the chances of personal connection to different personality types and life experiences my students bring to the reading.
The same holds for the non-fiction texts I selected to include in this unit’s reading. We’ll Never Forget You, Roberto Clemente and Wanted Dead or Alive: The True Story of Harriet Tubman provide both a hero and a heroine from two different time periods in US history. While both are biographical in nature and tell their stories along the timeline of the protagonist’s life, the style of writing and nature of the struggles faced are distinct. Roberto Clemente’s story offers some history of our school’s namesake, which will pique student curiosity. But Roberto is also a more contemporary black Puerto Rican hero who, from meager circumstances, became one of the greatest major league players of his time. Students will connect to his family life, responsibility he acquired and sacrifices he made moving to the US, persistence in working to achieve his dreams, overcoming both language and color barriers, homesickness, and sabotage. His struggles, in some way, parallel student struggles more closely than the obstacles Harriet Tubman conquered.
Her story, Wanted Dead or Alive, is told more lyrically, creating a poetic sketch of episodes in her life and providing a strong textual focus on difficulties she faced with persistence - fighting not only for her own freedom, but for the collective freedom of those she rescued. The account offers several harrowing events where she persisted in trying and dangerous situations, planned rescues in advance, relied on outside and human resources, and set various goals to rescue people in small groups, traveling together house to house, taking the struggle one day at a time. Students will have to make more abstract personal connections to her heroic self-regulation, but such abstract connections will enrich their critical interpretation of texts and the types of connections that can be made between a contemporary existence and a more historical one.
Throughout the unit, I have distributed several opportunities for students to read, discuss and write about their connections to the characters and the themes presented in texts we read together. To seal this understanding and perhaps more literally articulate the notion of connecting to literature, I have embedded activities that encourage graphic, physical, and emotional connections to the characters and their experience as self-regulated heroes. For example, the class matrix presents a graphic map, displaying the parallels to be drawn from students to characters and back to classroom practice. Students will read, observe, contribute and record experiences that traverse text, history, fiction and non-fiction, the classroom, intellectual and social learning. Such parallels will be visually displayed, side-by-side, to clearly articulate the “connections” between student and character self-regulating behaviors.
Reader’s theatre allows students the opportunity to take an excerpt of expository or narrative text and write between the lines. Students must, quite explicitly, place themselves in the mind of the protagonist and supporting characters, to write a dialogue that supports and extends the themes presented in the text. Repositioning students in the character’s scenario reinforces pre-existing connections and may allow them to see more, relate more, and retain more understanding of the heroic traits to be learned from the hero.
Role play also encourages an emotional connection between actor and role, deepening appreciation for the character and internalizing learning more viscerally. Role play is a concrete forum to demonstrate learning which will aid in student retention of concepts studied while accommodating social and artistic learners who make connections more intuitively than mathematical or auditory learners. Role play will prompt student-student discussion of self-regulated learning behaviors, develop ways of physically demonstrating them, clarify misunderstandings, and perhaps elaborate or extend current learning to include other self-regulated traits or previously unseen connections.
To ensure that this unit’s goals have been achieved, it is crucial to add, not only a post-assessment component, but an opportunity for students to transfer their understanding from text, social life, and academic discussion to actual practice in academic content specific tasks. If the end goal is to develop and reinforce self-regulated learning strategies, then such strategies must not only be noted, they must also be employed, reinforced, and validated. To this end, students will be asked to approach a challenging math problem. They will be encouraged to employ strategies they previously utilized as well as new ones they may have discovered in their study of text heroes. Their reflection in writing and discussion will begin to promote concept transfer and provide feedback to the instructor regarding the students’ level of understanding and use of the new strategies.
Students will also apply their new strategies in learning to play a new game like dominoes, scruples, or chess (any new game with written directions will do). Such a situation provides numerous junctures for self-regulated learning strategies to comprehend the game’s directions, but also to negotiate the social challenges of working with a group and competing against a team. Post-game reflection and comparing and contrasting the physical education experience with the math experience will build on prior knowledge, increase understanding of the broad application of such strategies and again, provide feedback on transfer of the self-regulated learning tools.
At the start of the unit, a “problem box” will be introduced for students to anonymously submit slips detailing academic or social problems they have confronted, are having difficulty with, or see in others. The class will review some of these problems on a daily basis for group trouble-shooting, application of old and new self-regulated learning strategies, and on-going feedback for the teacher to assess student ownership and use of such tools. The problem box will also create a venue for problems of all types to collapse into one another, hopefully transferring the strategies from one forum to many, seeing their academic and social utility. It’s also a safe place for students to rehearse, revise, reconfigure and reflect on their understanding of the concepts. Non-threatening components such as this one often create a space for students who would otherwise fear contributing. The teacher can also use this problem box as a way to introduce opportunities that have not arisen naturally to extend student consideration of the multiple contexts for strategy function.