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Filtering by Category: Research

Writing Is A Social Activity

Stacy Rosenblum

In this short piece from our Students Speak video series (watch it at the end of this post, or click here), we pose the question, “What do teachers do that help to improve your writing?”  In our high tech world where there seems to be an app for just about everything, the answers we heard from students may surprise you with their simplicity.

Ava, age 14, explains that an engaging class discussion is the best thing that her teachers can provide in order to help her writing improve.  Andrew, age 15, reflects on a recent successful experience of collaborating with a peer in order to focus and refine his written work.   

What is revealed in these answers is that writing, as a tool of communication, is inherently a social activity.  The key to improving writing for many students seems to be quite simple:  give them the opportunity to talk to one another.  

Social experiences are extremely powerful for pre-adolescents and adolescents.  Students of this age, in middle and high school, are highly attuned to the social atmosphere.  They listen to each other and are very easily influenced by each other’s ideas.  Peer discussion is the perfect tool to help expand ideas and understanding around any topic.  During dialogue and discussion, students are able to explore a variety of perspectives and debate points of ethics and morality while also expanding their understanding and general knowledge on the topic at hand.  As opposed to teacher-centered instruction, “in participatory classrooms, students use texts as tools for learning and constructing new knowledge“ (Alvermann, 2002).  Engagement in a class discussion encourages higher level thinking. Students have the opportunity to view themselves as resources for one another, instead of relying on the teacher to disseminate knowledge.  They are motivated to search for evidence, pose alternative hypotheses, and debate as they rarely would with an adult.

In the video, Ava explains that prior to a class discussion on marriage equality, she thought her mind was made up on the matter of a city official who refused to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples.  However, as she listened to the arguments of her classmates, she recognized that her initial idea may have been a bit rash.  Via the class discussion, Ava was able to open up to a variety of perspectives on the issue, and ultimately view the issue from multiple points of view.

This ability to examine an issue from multiple perspectives is an essential social skill that all children practice and learn.  Instruction starts in toddlerhood, when young children begin to understand how their actions impact others.  By middle school, students are able to grapple with increasingly complex issues of ethics, values and morality, and debate opposing sides of an issue.  Discussion with peers, coupled with appropriate support from a trusted adult, enables students to develop the critical thinking skills necessary for thinking about and communicating new ideas verbally, and in their writing.  

An important component to peer discussion is an adult facilitator.  Teachers and parents should model higher level thinking skills, such as inferential understandings, or comparative analysis.  They may also help to further the discussion by asking provocative questions or posing alternative perspectives.  Adult facilitators have an important role of setting the boundaries of a discussion.  Care should be taken to value all voices equally and ensure that conclusions are consistent with fact.  Students need to hear each other’s voices and have the opportunity to share their own opinions and ideas, but they need adults to act as the “guardrails” and maintain expectations and a positive climate for class discussions.

Today’s students have access to loads of technology and innumerable online resources.  It is remarkable, and wonderfully refreshing to hear from our Students Speak panel that the most effective support that a teacher can offer to help them with writing is a social experience.  This reminds us that despite all of the technological advances in education, the best methods are often the tried and true.

Sources:  Alvermann, Donna E. "Effective Literacy Instruction for Adolescents." Journal of Literacy Research 34.2 (2002): 189-208. Sage Journals. Web.

The Emotionality of Learning

Alice Mangan, Ph.D.

Dr. Alice Mangan is a clinical psychologist in NYC who works in both her own private practice and in schools to provide consultation, assessment, evaluation, and psychotherapy services. Alice's research focuses on the relationship between school and family and the influence of learning disabilities on the lives of child, parent, and family. She is also a part of the MyloWrites Advisory Board- read her full bio here.

The below post is Alice's reflection on the first of four installments in the MyloWrites Kids Panel, a new video series that explores children's thoughts and feelings surrounding learning and writing. We often hear from teachers and parents about the struggles that students have with the writing process. Now, we hear the student perspective about writing, expectations, and how they think the experience could be improved. Watch Part One of the Kids Panel here, or at the bottom of this blog!

“Oh no!” groans 16-year old Andrew, after being asked the question, “What thoughts come up when your teacher assigns a piece of writing?”  The feelings that underlie his automatic response are immediately apparent: dread, worry, even fear.  Just imagine if each time a teacher assigned you a piece of writing, that this moment, and all the moments that followed, were accompanied by these troubling, stomach-ache inducing feelings.  For many students for whom most writing assignments are grueling, these feelings are a constant companion in their process of writing.

We can easily forget, as the grown-ups in children’s and adolescents’ lives, that learning, while typically thought of as a set of cognitive processes, is also a fundamentally emotional endeavor.   Whatever affective experience is attached to that which we are attempting to learn has an intimate effect on the quality of our engagement and how we will experience the process and the product.  Whenever we are in a process of learning something new, or struggling through something that is not as yet automatic, we are, as Piaget theorized, in a state of disequilibrium.  This state is inherently uncomfortable, anxiety provoking, and ultimately taxing to self-regulatory processes.  Such feelings can be so intense that we might be moved to abandon or retreat from whatever learning we are attempting in an effort to regain a sense of equilibrium.  In this reestablished state of equilibrium, our anxiety reduces, our frustration dissipates, and once again we can have a “good-enough” sense of our own competence and potential.  Still, that which we have been assigned to learn is left unfinished and un-learned, giving rise to yet another set of uncomfortable feelings against which we must defend.

As teachers and parents, when we observe this retreat from engaging in difficult (or not-so-difficult) learning, we may be moved to feel frustrated by the child’s retreat, perceiving in the student a kind of “laziness” or disinterest, or even impertinence.  And yet, these adult perceptions of the child’s experience miss the mark and may further compound the child’s sense of inadequacy. 

Arguably all children want to learn.  Children want to experience the feeling of competence and success that comes with the acquisition of new knowledge and skills.  Not only is learning a way to make one’s life more interesting and complex, it also is a way to secure one’s self-esteem and sense of agency in one’s life. 

So, what do we do to support Andrew, and others like him, for whom many experiences of learning are filled with dread? What are the elements that support our students’ sustained engagement in the difficult process of learning? How can we help students experience success? Here are just a few ideas:

1. We continuously keep in mind that learning is an emotional and a cognitive endeavor, and we understand that how the learner feels in the context of the learning experience can influence engagement in the process and the ultimate outcome.

We are attuned to what children may be feeling as they engage in learning, and we respond to this affective experience sensitively, adjusting our approach to help reduce anxiety and frustration.  

2. We engage in ongoing assessment that guides the construction of differentiated learning experiences for students. 

When we engage in a process of fine-tuned observation of students’ responses to instruction, we are better able to provide learning experiences that are optimal.  If students are within their instructional zone, they are less likely to feel flooded by frustration, anxiety and dread, and more likely to actually be available to engage in the difficult process of learning. 

3. We supply appropriate scaffolding for students’ learning.        

Based on Vygotsky’s “zone of proximal development,” scaffolding allows the learner to engage in material or processes that are within reach if given the appropriate supports.  Scaffolding learning may include teacher or peer modeling, breaking assignments down into component parts, collaborative learning, reciprocal teaching, and many more creative techniques.  As the learner develops competency and independence, the scaffolds employed become unnecessary, and thus are removed.  

4. We provide opportunities for students to make choices about their learning. 

Students are often more motivated to participate in the hard work of learning if they feel personally invested and engaged in the content and process.  Providing opportunities for students to make choices in their learning often secures this kind of investment. 

5. We make learning relevant and meaningful to students. 

When the knowledge and skills we teach are relevant to the lives and interests of students, learning feels more purposeful.  Purpose sustains engagement, even when the going gets tough. 

6. Above all, we remember that learning is often best done in the context of strong relationships and safe environments.  

We prioritize the building of healthy learning communities.  

We work hard to neutralize the negative charge frequently inherent in an environment that serves learners with a range of strengths, weaknesses and needs.  We help children to understand that difference is not pejorative, but merely descriptive.   

We model self-compassion and frustration tolerance, engage in a stance of curiosity when problems arise, and employ a flexible approach to problem solving.

And finally, we invest in our students, getting to know them, and building authentic connections based on an appreciation and respect for their individuality.  

NYC Special Ed Collaborative

Stacy Rosenblum

Recently, we were invited to present our webinar on Teaching Adolescents How to Write in the 21st Century to the members of the NYC Special Ed Collaborative. This unique organization provides special education supports to students, teachers, related service providers and administrators within over 170 charter schools in New York City.  

Often, the small size of charter schools, and their limited funding makes the initiation of a comprehensive and effective support plans for students with special needs particularly challenging. Yet, many charter schools in New York City have a strong commitment to inclusion for all students.  

The NYC Special Ed Collaborative is a member supported organization which provides access to training, consulting, professional development, and even technical assistance to their member schools. Collaborative member schools are provided with all the necessary assistance to develop a rigorous, inclusive and fully-compliant special education program.

School professionals, especially those who are working to deliver a high quality and consistent education to students with special needs have very limited time to engage in professional development. The NYC Special Ed Collaborative recognizes the precious time of teachers and administrators, and responds to this need by presenting numerous webinars for professionals to participate in real time, or view a recorded version later.

Our webinar, Teaching Adolescents How to Write in the 21st Century was presented by MyloWrites founding learning specialist Stacy Rosenblum, adolescent psychologist, Dr. Dana Dorfman, and charter school leader, Dr. Barbara McKeon. We examined the challenges faced by 20th Century educators as they teach 21st Century learners how to write with purpose, clarity, and confidence.  

MyloWrites was thrilled to have the opportunity to present to the NYC Special Ed Collaborative. Our webinar was designed specifically to address the concerns of teachers and administrators in using best practices in writing and technology. For students of the 21st century, technological fluency is a must, as are excellent written communication skills. MyloWrites supports the intersection of these skills. Our webinar examined how the cognitive and emotional growth of the adolescent student may be better understood in order to support students to develop new skills in writing.

If you missed this webinar and would like to view a recording, please take a look below or access it here.  

MyloWrites would love to present a professional development workshop on adolescent brain development and writing for your school or organization! Please contact us for more information.