Last time, I wrote about one point of frustration during my American Lit class’s first time through the Inquiry Learning Plan (ILP)–their first individualized unit where they were designing activities and assessments. About 2/3 of the way through, students hit another snag. They had already completed 6 activities, and we took a few minutes of class to look back at what they’ve done and figured out our next steps for the upcoming round of activities. Students seemed to be in a good place, recognizing that each activity connects an element of content and at least one standard as they aimed to learn more about their essential questions. And, after lots of practice breaking down standards into rubrics and developing activities in small groups, most students were pretty comfortable with designing their own activities during class workshop time. Their comfort was apparent in their self-assessments after their second round of activities. Using Dr. Carol Kuhlthau’s ISP continuum, I had asked students to identify emotions they were feeling about their work at that point. Many said they were feeling confidence and clarity. Several wrote that they had a sense of direction. Wahoo!
The next day in class, I complimented their progress and their resilience as they tried something new. I also spent some time reminding them about the requirements for their last three activities–they needed to use their long text in one of the activities, they had to use any remaining texts (of their original 7), and they had to cover all of their standards. I didn’t anticipate the reaction I got that day. After all, I thought, if they had put effort into their prior activities, and if they had learned from the mistakes that they made to improve for the final round, they would be in great shape.
However, the mood almost instantly changed in the room.They looked scared, baffled, and frustrated. Recognizing the distress, I did some quick conferencing with students. One student told me that he left class the prior day feeling clarity with both the content and the inquiry process. Today, he plummeted right back to doubt. Only this time, he said, he felt lower than when we started the process. A few students admitted that they were struggling to make sense of new source information, and even more were overwhelmed by the thought of coordinating everything in these last few activities. Confusion and frustration were rampant.
Carol Kuhlthau has spent a lifetime studying those emotions associated with learning in what she titled the Information Search Process (ISP). Below is a visual adaptation of Kuhlthau’s ISP that Ann Bemis, one of our esteemed teacher-librarian colleagues, created to help students and staff understand the link between the physical steps of seeking, acquiring, processing, and sharing information and the emotional responses one has when going through those steps.
In our work with the ILP, Meg, Heather, Marci, and I noticed that the steps between confusion and sense of direction worked more like a cycle than a direct path (indicated by the red arrows in the image above). My students’ reflections during our conferences seem to support that. Each time they are asked to reflect, they might gain a sense of direction or clarity, but as soon as new information (especially contradictory information) is added to the equation in the next round of activities, there is always the potential to be thrown right back to the confusion stage as students make sense of the new ideas or new processes in light of what they already learned.
When this happens, it’s crucial for a teacher to step in and help students recognize why they’re frustrated and help them find strategies to work through those challenges. In this particular case, I had students who were struggling with the managerial aspect of the ILP–what to do when and how. For them, I gave them a calendar, and with each, I had a conference in which we mapped out their remaining activities together. All of them simply needed reminders about the expectations and reassurance that they covered everything they needed to cover. Having clear direction for each remaining day seemed to help.
For most students, though, they struggled to reconcile differences in perspectives around their essential question topics. Since that concern seemed widespread, I addressed it with the entire class first. I tried a mini-lesson that I stole from my supervisor in which the teacher gives the whole class two seemingly different texts and practices synthesis as a group. I projected Jackson Pollock’s “Convergence” (without telling them the title of the painting) and wrote on the board a quote from Gloria Steinem: “The first problem for all of us, men and women, is not to learn but to unlearn.” In groups of 4, I asked students to discuss any connections they could find. After about 5 minutes, I brought them back together and asked them to share some ideas. They tended to really stick to the second part of Steinem’s quote and use her word, “unlearn” to describe Pollock’s unconventional style of painting. Then, I told them the painting’s title is “Convergence” and asked them to reconsider–knowing this new information, what connections could they make? This time, I heard students looking at the beginning of Steinem’s quote and thinking that she was offering a solution to a problem. Then they used the splattering of different colors in the Pollock painting to support the idea of “convergence;” all colors were coming together into a single piece of art. Furthermore, one decided, this represented social norms that Steinem was referring to in her quote. The student’s big takeaway was that in order for our society to progress, we all have to maintain our own integrity, our own selves, but at the same time “unlearn” things like selfishness in order to work together for the greater good of the whole society. Wow! I pointed out that these two texts had no connection initially and that they were not only able to come up with an understanding, they were able to articulate specific elements of each text that connected in some way–not agreed, but connected. I reminded them to keep that in mind as they make sense of their texts; the authors don’t always have to agree to connect. Additionally, they might not be able to predict where they will end up and so their understanding of their topic could potentially shift with every new bit of information just as their conclusions shifted when they found out the name of the painting.
For individual students who were still struggling to make sense of it all, I held short one-on-one conferences. I had students to write down the main ideas of each author and then imagine those authors having a conversation. I asked a series of questions to get them thinking:
What would A say to the problems B describes? Would she want to solve them? Would she provide some examples? What would A say causes those problems?
What elements of the topic does A cover better than B? What do the gaps in B’s perspective tell you?
Where does A disagree with B? Which author do you believe, and why?
In a few cases, I wrote down what they were saying while they talked. Their answers to those questions (and others) were the connections between those authors that they were having such difficulty articulating. The last step for those students was to have them review the notes and develop an overall conclusion about their topics.
Of course, there were still struggles beyond that day, but overall, those strategies seemed to work. The key, I think, was making them aware of what they were feeling, making it okay to feel frustrated or confused, and giving them tools to work through those challenges. Now, when students hit those walls, they have a couple of strategies to consider on their own before they report to me that they “can’t” make connections or they “can’t” figure out how to create activities for multiple standards.