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Helping Students Know What It Looks Like When They Are Ready to Learn

Posted by 
Mitch Weathers
 on 
March 16, 2021

When I started teaching I worked at a Title 1 school that served a diverse student population. Many of my students struggled to engage in their schooling and were plagued with a history of academic failure. I teach high school and by the time students reached my classroom many of them had been turned off to their education. As a new teacher I made the mistake of thinking that if I could engage my students in the content of my course then they would be more successful. I teach science so making my lessons fun and engaging is not all that difficult. Afterall, we can light things on fire, we can cut open frogs, go outside, drop watermelons off the bleachers, create bridges out of spaghetti, to name a few. What I discovered early on in my career is that with all my effort to engage my students they made meager gains academically. 

Driftwood

Then, one day in class I had an epiphany. My students were like driftwood in the ocean. Each day they would casually drift into class, oftentimes arriving late, with nothing from the previous day’s lesson nor any school supplies. They would just wonder in, find their seat, follow along with the lesson, and then drift out the door. It was clear that they could not see that what we learned today was connected to what we did the day before, as well as what we will learn tomorrow. My students seemed rudderless, lost at sea, in need of a lifeline. 

Weekly Lifeline

I needed a way to help my students get grounded and learn how to do school. In response I created the first aspect of Organized Binder - the Weekly Lifeline. My plan was to use the Weekly Lifeline we start each day with a Kick-Off Prompt and conclude each day with a Learning Log. Both strategies give students routine daily practice with metacognition, elaboration, and retrieval practice, both which enhance retention. 

For fun I told my students about my driftwood analogy. Then, in a more serious tone, I went on to explain that they were adrift and that I was going to throw them a lifeline. All asked of them was to grab hold. Grabbing the lifeline meant engaging with me, and their classmates, each day when we started with a simple Kick-Off Prompt and ended class with a Learning Log reflection. I promised them that if they did, if they grabbed the lifeline, they would be more successful in my class because they would be so familiar with what we are learning, what I call marinating, they couldn’t help but improve. To my good fortune, my students bought in and engaged with me. 

A Soccer Game

I described how we would start each day with the Kick-Off Prompt on the Weekly Lifeline. We would “Kick-Off’ each lesson, just like a soccer match. I played soccer and my students at that time did as well, so my analogy resonated with them. I asked my students to walk me through the steps they take to get ready for a soccer match. They explained that they arrive at the field early, get their gear on, warm up, and then they are assigned to play a specific position. Eventually both teams and the referees take to the field and then, and only then, there is a whistle to kick the game off. Every person on the field has to be ready when the whistle blows. 

Learning is exactly the same - you have to know what it looks like when you are ready. I told them that in our class that meant getting your Organized Binder, opening to this week’s Weekly Lifeline, having something to write with, etc. I also told my students that this will seem weird at first, but in time, they will become more familiar with what it looks like when they are ready to learn. I asked them to imagine what would happen if a soccer game started and you still did not have your cleats on or did not know what position you were playing? 

When students know what it looks like when they are ready to learn and how to prepare to get to that place, they are far more likely to be successful. That is why with Organized Binder we throw students a Weekly Lifeline to Kick-Off each lesson with Organized Binder.

Be well,

Mitch

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